In a sport where plenty of fighters still awkwardly circle with seven feet of space between them and the opponent, then wing full-power swings while trying to run in the opposite direction, Max Holloway’s comfort in trading range might as well be considered a superpower. It took all of a minute for Holloway to work Brian Ortega out and to start taking chunks out of the challenger. Round one was a beating and Holloway simply did the same thing, with more intensity, every round after that.
Of course, the one thing that everyone knew coming into this fight was that Brian Ortega is an opportunist and not a perfectionist. In fact Ortega had not convincingly won a round in years before he fought Cub Swanson. Ortega takes shots, lands a few of his own, and then finds the finish seemingly out of nowhere. This fight was always going to be the man who can find the finish at any time, against the man who only gets stronger as the fight progresses.
The disparity in striking skill was obvious before the fight: Ortega is finding his feet as a striker and Holloway has already developed into one of the best to ever compete in the UFC. The things that Ortega was doing—attempting to get down behind his lead shoulder and time big counters—would work against lesser strikers, but Holloway was having none of it.
From the get go, Holloway’s jab interrogated Ortega and squeezed his intentions out of him. If Holloway jabbed and Ortega retreated, a second jab would cover Holloway’s second step, and a right hand would fly towards Ortega’s head or body on the end of it. Whenever Ortega lingered, the second step would never come but the right hand would slip in early. And when Ortega went to his shoulder roll—which we have discussed not working against Renato Moicano—Holloway would jab him deep into it and then crack him with the right hand all the same.
Ones and twos were the diet that Holloway fed Ortega for the majority of his five hundred thrown strikes in this bout, but there was plenty of variety in there too. Holloway is one of the best in MMA history at getting to his opponent’s body. Where Takanori Gomi and Fedor Emelianenko pioneered the body punch in MMA, neither mounted them on the kind of scientific boxing that Holloway uses to sneak them in. In addition to wide rights and right straights to the body, Holloway will often throw a left handed body shot off the jab, requiring some serious dexterity and a gauge on his opponent’s reactions.
A beautiful sequence from the fight wherein Ortega pivots offline into an exaggerated shoulder roll (frames 1 and 2), exposing his ribs and kidney on his right side. Holloway feints a jab (frame 3) before dropping into a body shot with the left hand (5). Ortega returned with a hook which fell just short. ( Gif )
Jab, jab, right hand was the majority of Holloway’s fight but there were so many little stance switches, angles and feints that we have no chance of covering them all here. One wonderful thing about Holloway is that his game is built around pushing a pace, but not at the expense of his own defense. The featherweight champ has a great sense of when to push his advantages to the fullest, and when to take a step back and look to counter. And being a well trained boxer, Holloway rarely takes two steps back, instead it is a short retreat and an angle out to forty-five degrees looking for the right hand counter.
Now for the most part Ortega was being punished for his unpolished striking. He would lean too far or dip too low when he showed the first or second jab and then a right hand would crack him while he was way out of position. But Ortega showed that while he may not have the polish he certainly has a mind for the striking game as he set a couple of crafty traps for Holloway. In the first round, realizing that Holloway would follow with the double jab if he gave ground, Ortega shifted back from a southpaw stance into an orthodox one and cracked Holloway with a counter elbow similar to the one that wobbled Frankie Edgar.
Similarly, Ortega used his shoulder roll to attempt to draw Holloway onto an upward back elbow. This elbow strike was made famous by Anderson Silva, who used it to knock out Tony Fryklund. Silva did it to Fryklund on the lead, off a hand trap, but towards the end of his career Silva made the realization that the technique worked even better coming out of the shoulder roll, where the lead hand his low and the opponent is likely to be stepping in to strike already. Ortega didn’t actually catch Holloway with this elbow, but Holloway had to slam on the brakes to avoid running onto it.
Ortega’s most successful elbow came as he flowed offense into defense. Holloway was rightly cautious when he was leading but he could get drawn in on the counter. After stepping in with a one-two, Ortega went into one of his deep, sloppy slips to evade a counter and just as Max thought he had the perfect shot, Ortega spun into a back elbow that snapped Holloway’s head around.
Ortega’s takedown attempts were decent, given that he had completed just one in his UFC career, but Holloway was sharp on defense. Holloway was always feeding Ortega the single leg and either limp legging out or hopping to the fence and dragging Ortega up into a clinch. Ortega made a couple of good attempts to snap Holloway down and catch a front headlock, but the moment Holloway was knocked off balance he arched his back and stood tall like his life depended on it. In the fourth round, Ortega took such a beating that he chased the takedown as a matter of urgency. One attempt saw Holloway turn him and step over into mount but even as beaten and tired as Ortega was, in that brief instant on the ground Ortega’s ability shined through. His hands went straight into Holloway’s armpits, pushed him overhead, and his feet replaced them to roll out into a heel hook attempt.
The fight was called off by the doctor before the fifth round could start. This was merciful, as Ortega had absorbed over three hundred strikes in the previous four rounds and was a swollen, bloody mess. But there is no doubting the heart of Brian Ortega, who was quite prepared to go out and take another hundred strikes just to look for that one perfect elbow or snap down.
Ortega’s striking looked amateurish against Holloway, but Ortega still has plenty of time left to improve. His striking has come on in leaps and bounds through his short UFC tenure already so being able to absorb the best shots from Holloway for four rounds will probably only give him more confidence to experiment and grow comfortable under fire. If he can use that confidence to shore up the defensive holes and tighten up his form, he could trouble even the better strikers of the division. And don’t forget that jiu jitsu is what Ortega is known for in spite of his almost complete lack of takedowns. There is so much missing in Ortega’s game and he has still made it this far. With attention in the right areas there is certainly a lot more to look forward to in his future.
For Holloway the next step is unclear. He has only defended his featherweight crown twice, but he has already fought the majority of top featherweights on his way up. If Frankie Edgar can successfully pitch yet another title shot, there will always be an audience for Holloway vs. Edgar. There are rumblings of Holloway going to lightweight though, and Dana White has expressed his desire to see Holloway there. Max missed out on a late notice title fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov a few months back, but more than that there is the prospect of a rematch with Conor McGregor which would certainly garner great interest and provide Holloway with an enormous payday. Either way, it is great to have Holloway back in action and looking so damned sharp after the worrying symptoms that took him out of the originally scheduled Ortega fight back in July. Holloway is one of the best to ever play this game and every time he steps in the cage it is a joy to sit back and spectate.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.