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Out of nowhere, UFC 222 was a launching pad for a youth movement

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

UFC 222 almost didn’t happen. A mere month before showtime, the event’s future was put into doubt when the UFC featherweight championship match between Max Holloway and Frankie Edgar was scrapped due to a Holloway injury. Calls went out, offers were declined, divisions were nearly created out of thin air. It was only when Cris Cyborg — usually a negotiating nightmare for UFC brass — accepted a short-notice matchup that everything could move forward.

On Saturday, the misfortune of Holloway and the heroics of Cyborg added up to a doozy of a night, a show in which the UFC might have seen the ascension of a new crop of badly needed stars. Brian Ortega and Sean O’Malley stole the show. Ketlen Vieira proved she was for real. Alexander Hernandez sprung a major upset. And Mackenzie Dern collected her first Octagon win. What do all these fighters have in common? Youth. All of them are fresh faces, ranging from age 23 to 27. And success. Combined, they have a record of 49 wins, only one loss and one no contest.

“One of the things we’ve always been good at is cultivating young talent, and I think more so in the last couple years than ever probably,” UFC president Dana White said in the post-fight press conference.

While the merits of that statement are open to debate, White had every right to end the night with a post-fight buzz, led by Ortega, the evening’s clear breakout star. The 27-year-old Californian managed to do something that no one had ever done before — not Jose Aldo, not B.J. Penn or Benson Henderson. He finished the future Hall of Famer Frankie Edgar. And the Brazilian jiu-jitsu submission ace did it via knockout. In the first round.

To call the result stunning didn’t quite do it justice. We’ve seen Edgar wobbled so many times before just to see him recover and in many cases win, that when Ortega caught him flush with a step-in elbow, Edgar’s rubber legs felt like a temporary inconvenience. But Ortega measured and chased and back-stepped until he found an uppercut straight from the dark lands. It was as sublime as it was unexpected. Win? Sure. But by knockout?

It doesn’t hurt that Ortega comes neatly packaged with a gripping back story. He grew up in a chaotic home that saw him gravitate toward gangs, fights and trouble. He was mentored by Rener Gracie, who was so struck by his natural talent that he trained him for free. He has done much of his striking training in his coach’s one-car garage. He nearly drowned while surfing monster waves during a California storm. He still sleeps on the floor as he did when he was a kid, back then because his family home was so crowded. He recently started a foundation to inspire others.

Ortega managed to separate himself from trouble, and now he’s separating himself from the rest of the division’s contenders. After stopping Edgar, he’s virtually guaranteed a title shot against the man he replaced on Saturday night’s show, Holloway. White said after the event that he hopes to make that fight “as soon as possible.” You won’t hear many objections.

O’Malley, at 23, is one of the youngest fighters on the UFC roster, and he was something of a revelation during fight week. The mixture of brash personality and unique style have been obvious from the jump, but it’s his improvisational fighting skills that continue to unveil themselves in the bright light. He switches stances, he spins, he wings combinations that make no kinesiological sense. Jab, right cross, head kick, spinning backfist is not in the Striking 101 textbook, but it’s the kind of thing he draws up on the regular. Even if his win was dampened somewhat by an injured foot suffered in the final round, the promise shown was worth it.

Things were a bit more uneven for Dern, the BJJ ace who scraped by Ashley Yoder in a split decision. It wasn’t a highlight-reel kind of night for her, but she still showed enough to warrant an investment. She’s young (24) and fearless, and while she has work to do to tighten up her often-wild striking, she showed power and a willingness to mix it up. And when she finally dragged Yoder to the mat, her pedigree showed up in spades. There are building blocks there, rough edges to smooth out.

Hernandez (25) came out of nowhere, a lopsided underdog who starched 12th-ranked Beneil Dariush in just 42 seconds, while Vieira (26) clearly bullied longtime contender Cat Zingano in a fight that somehow ended up in a split decision. Now ranked fifth in the division, there’s not much separating her from current champion Amanda Nunes, at least within her division.

Yes, it was a banner night for youth, the likes of which the UFC hasn’t seen in quite a while. In a sport that’s always looking for what’s next, it felt like some piece of an answer. Time will tell what it all amounts to. Maybe some of them wins belts, or one of them does or none of them do. Maybe Ortega completes his miraculous run to a title, or O’Malley one-ups the Showtime kick, or Dern rounds out her game and reaches the potential that many are forecasting for her. Maybe. That’s for tomorrow. That’s for the future. For now, we have possibilities. UFC 222 was a launching pad for a youth movement, and for now, that’s plenty.