As the minutes count down to UFC 231, uncertainty stands alongside excitement. For years, Max Holloway has been one of the most dependable fighters in the game. From the start of 2012 until the end of 2017, he fought 18 times, transforming into a powerhouse while capturing the UFC featherweight championship.
But 2018 has so far been a nightmare for Holloway. In March, he was forced to withdraw from a fight due to a leg injury. In April, he agreed to a short-notice fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov, but despite contracting to compete a division higher than normal, Holloway had to scrap the plan after the New York State Athletic Commission doctors disallowed him from continuing what they considered to be a dangerous weight cut. Then, just days before a title defense against Brian Ortega in July, Holloway was pulled from the fight with concussion-like symptoms. Without warning, the workhorse had been stabled.
Five months later, he’s attempting to return, but it’s fair to wonder if he’s coming back with compromised health. Against the surging Ortega, anything short of full strength will place Holloway in extreme danger.
The 27-year-old Ortega has been head-scratchingly successful during his MMA career, going 14-0 overall and 6-0 in the UFC (he also has one no contest due to testing positive for the performance-enhancing drug drostanolone in his UFC debut, an infraction that cost him a nine-month suspension). In looking solely at his statistics, there is no way he should be as successful as he has been. According to FightMetric, he lands only 32 percent of his strikes, completes only 14 percent of his takedowns, and is out-landed by 1.62 strikes per minute. Historically, those kinds of numbers get you hurt and out of a job, yet here Ortega is on the cusp of a championship and viewed by bettors as a slight favorite to end Holloway’s reign.
Ortega owes his success to both his characteristics and skills, chief among them is his poise. From June 2015 to July 2017, Ortega won four straight fights with final-round finishes, something that had never been accomplished in UFC history. He did that despite being out-struck in all of those bouts prior to his stoppage. He is dangerous from the first minute to the last. But while he entered the UFC as a green rookie, he has made clear refinements to his game over time.
While Ortega is clearly most dangerous with his slick and dominant grappling, his striking has come along well. He switches stances, uses a protective shell and head movement, and has illustrated power with three knockdowns in his last six fights, including the first-ever stoppage of the great Frankie Edgar. However, there are certain limitations to his game that he’s still working on. For one thing, he mainly focuses his striking attacks on his boxing. Against Holloway, he will have to show more dimensions to get the champion to back off from his usual blistering pace. This may be particularly important given Holloway’s mastery of range. The Hawaiian may have the best footwork in the division, cutting angles while dictating the distance of the fight.
Holloway (19-3) epitomizes the cool intensity of his island roots. He never exactly seems rushed in his mission, although he seems absolutely certain it’s going to get done. Holloway is capable of fighting in multiple styles. He can box or brawl. He can fight southpaw or orthodox. He excels from distance and in the clinch. He has intelligent shot selection, in both location and timing. His versatility is key to his success.
While the champion is recognized for his voluminous output, there is a patience to his approach. His opening-round productivity far exceeds the average fighter, but for Holloway, those first five minutes are usually a fact-finding mission in which he is poking and prodding, finding openings and studying responses. Take, for instance, his back-to-back TKO wins over Jose Aldo in 2017. This is his round-by-round strike output in the first fight: 32, 78, 124; and in the second fight: 89, 105, 212. Those escalations are not outliers; they embody what he does. Holloway understands his redline is far beyond normal and takes advantage of it.
His late-fight excellence dovetails interestingly with that of Ortega, who turns up volume, power, and aggression. Ortega seems to have a knack for finding that exact moment when his finishing chances are at a maximum and fully committing to the opportunity. That was evidenced in his December 2017 win over Cub Swanson, in which he jumped a flying triangle after being backed against the cage. While he didn’t have the proper grip to finish at the outset, he had the poise and skill to let go, re-adjust, and choke out his black-belt opponent.
That sequence is instructive past his relentlessness. It also shows the danger he presents in multiple positions. While his aforementioned poor takedown numbers might suggest a minimum number of opportunities to put his dangerous jiu-jitsu in play, he has found workarounds as he did against Swanson.
It will be important for him to find those opportunities against Holloway, and for Holloway to be on guard against him. Holloway has a career 83 percent takedown defense, which means that Ortega will have to create scrambles and transitional openings rather than rely on traditional wrestling.
On the ground, there is little question that Ortega has the deeper, more threatening arsenal, equally capable of finishing from the top or bottom. Holloway, however, is no slouch himself, although he clearly prefers to advance positions to land ground strikes over hunting submissions. Holloway’s takedown attempts are few and far between, but his career success rate is an excellent 80 percent.
From both numbers and history, we can infer that Holloway will have the edge in dictating how the fight progresses. He has historically shown that he can keep the fight standing, at distance, and with a steadily increasing pace. It will be Ortega’s job to disrupt all of those aims. He will need creativity and guile to do so, and he has displayed both.
This fight is rightfully considered a toss-up for good reason. They are fighters of strong but contrasting skill sets, yet it’s hard to shake that if both were at full strength, Holloway would almost certainly be favored. While he can only answer any leftover health questions on Saturday night, he did pass his first test on Friday morning when he easily made championship weight, checking in at 144.5 pounds. If you’re taking that as a clue, it can only be seen as a major positive. With that roadblock passed, the pick is Holloway in an action-packed decision victory.