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Max Holloway’s masterpiece was at the same time a showcase of Brian Ortega’s heart

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Heading into Saturday night, Max Holloway’s health was being fussed over in hushed tones, quiet enough not to disturb an otherwise fascinating fight. Coming out people were arguing his greatness in not only the canon of featherweights but the entire realm of anybodys who were ever anythings. One good fight was all it took to change reality. UFC 231’s main event was so good it even changed geography. As of Friday night, Toronto was a city up in Ontario. By Saturday night it was a Hawaiian island — the tenth of its kind, and the only one east of the Mississippi.

In a single 20-minute span Holloway was able to reshape everything we thought we knew with combinations that played over Brian Ortega’s face like “Bolero.” There was a natural escalation to his composition. It was violent, unflinching, revelatory, full of orchestral swells and down-home pan rattling — a thing of spry wonder. It was so crisp as to become majestic, and so majestic as to become lulling, as only great art can do. Holloway, at the very peak of his powers, had never looked better. He schooled a young undefeated fighter, whom he happened to be younger than. Maybe that’s why Max is always saying, “it is what it is.”

Reality is never as it seems, so why not resign to just doing away with adjectives?

Yet he couldn’t have penned such a masterpiece in his latest featherweight title defense if Ortega wasn’t a beautiful player himself. Ortega was on the receiving end of those combinations, and yet his determination to move forward and land his own shots was equally revealing. What did it say each time Holloway rocked Ortega with a stream of four or five punches that Ortega merely took them as impediments? As things not to be registered? As little hindrances being put in front of him — by life and by circumstance — to keep him from his goal?

Ortega had his head snapped back in rhythm to Holloway’s punches in straight defiance. It was that visual that produced the awe. He was eating two or three shots before he could correct himself, or even regain his balance. For 20 minutes he was essentially being disassembled, in body and in mind. The crowd let up a roar with each cascade of blows. How much could “T-City” take? When he tried to feint, or take Holloway down, or switch up his point of attack, he was thwarted. He found himself trading with a buzz saw.

And yet he still pressed forward. If you’ve watched Ortega before, you know he won’t quit. He landed 110 significant strikes of his own, each one coming at a high cost. He came forward because he was compelled to figure it out. To pick the lock. The idea that he couldn’t — which slowly dawned over the fight by the third round — was the heartbreaking thing of beauty.

Whatever it is that got him there — the belief in himself, the willingness to die — was being shown in those moments, when it was clear to everyone else it was a lost cause. He was being hit in ways that report years down the road, shots that alter your instincts, give second thoughts to your impulses. Still, aside from a brief moment when he went to a knee and grabbed Holloway’s leg, he never really went down.

Ortega took 307 significant strikes, the most in UFC history. He took 134 in the fourth and final round alone. The size of his heart can be found in those numbers. He broke his thumb. His nose was shattered, and his left eye was swollen shut. The thing is, he wouldn’t go down. He staggered backwards, he wobbled, but he never fell. And he would have answered the bell for the fifth round if the toll weren’t as visible. The doctors rightly stopped the fight. But Ortega refused to go down.

In the many marvels in Saturday night’s main event, that show of heart is really what’s beating in the chest of the fight game. Amid a ton of doubt, Max Holloway — the betting underdog — put on a career performance in Toronto, and executed brilliantly. It’s possible that Holloway has emerged as the greatest offensive force in the UFC. He can dish it out.

And Saturday night’s fight goes down as an instant classic because Ortega, a warrior if there ever was one, can take it.

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