The Unknown and the Anticipation: Max Holloway vs. Brian Ortega

For a lot of people, Max Holloway vs. Brian Ortega, which goes down at UFC 231 in the Scotiabank Arena, Toronto, Canada this Saturday night, is one of the most intriguing match-ups possible in MMA today. And that might seem like a pretty straightforward take right now, but not so long ago it wasn’t the case.

Following his victory over Jose Aldo at UFC 212 in June 2017, it looked like Max Holloway, who has developed into one of the pound-for-pound best fighters on earth, was about to reign over the UFC’s featherweight division with regular title defences throughout the years ahead. And with plenty reason. The Hawaiian had won ten fights since losing to Conor McGregor in 2013 with improvements in the quality of performance and opponent coming at every step. The division was at Holloway’s feet and he was about to stomp all over it.

That, though, hasn’t happened.

Holloway’s only title defence in the 18 months since he beat Aldo and unified the interim title he had previously won against Anthony Pettis was, again, against Aldo with Frankie Edgar out of their scheduled bout with injury. Holloway then pulled out of another planned Edgar date with injury before missing out on a short notice fight for the vacant lightweight title against current champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. To make matters worse, Holloway then came up with concussion like symthoms in July and had a planned fight with Saturday’s opponent Brian Ortega scrapped on fight week.

Somehow, Holloway quickly went from a dependable contender on a roll to a champion who just couldn’t catch a break.

While at the same time, Brian Ortega was taking up the mantle Holloway previously sat atop. The American won six in a row after his UFC debut was overturned becauce of a PED failure with finishes against every opponent along the way.

On the face of it, this looks like a man in form steaming towards the title against a champion who has struggled to get any rhythm with the gold around his waste. And it definitely is that, but there is more to it than just that.

The uncertainty around Max Holloway’s health is always going to be a hard one to judge. Have the injury issues and periods without competition hurt him as a mixed martial artist or will he be the same guy as he was before? I suppose fans of UFC betting odds can decide that for themselves but nobody will truly know until Saturday.

But what we do know is that Holloway was exceptional. He is a most clear and obvious example of a prospect maturing before our very eyes into a phenomenal talent. His game has developed into one of domination in every area. He walks opponents down, defends their attacks and devours them with offence. He is a juggernaut in the truest MMA form and, at his best, he could beat anyone below 155 lbs.

That statement is another reason why it’s slightly odd that this fight is so hotly anticipated. Holloway is so good that it should be tough for anyone to reach the levels he has to even make a competitive debate. But Brian Ortega has.

For years, Ortega looked to be a slowly improving all rounder with magnificent submission skills. He would struggle his way through fights and then use his world class jiu-jitsu to snatch victory. That made him exciting and dangerous but, at the very top level, also unlikely to beat the very best.

But then he fought Frankie Edgar; and everything changed.

Ortega’s performance against Edgar is the reason nobody can wait for Saturday night. Many could have predicted Ortega winning by submission but the way he dominated the striking against the former lightweight champion was almost hard to fathom. He won the battle for distance, he looked to have finally developed striking technique that suited him and he produced a stunning beat down on the man many had down as possibly the only real challenger for Holloway currently at featherweight.

That fight was a coming of age for Brian Ortega and showed that he isn’t just a plucky submission guy. This man is a threat to the very best.

But one swallow doesn’t make a summer.

If (big if) he can do it again against  Max Holloway , and if Max Holloway is at 100%, we really could be in for a fight of the year contender.

There are plenty of ifs in there but that’s MMA in a nutshell. It’s impossible to call…. and that’s why we love it. With Holloway vs. Ortega that level of uncertainty is more than your average fight because the what has happened over the last year and a half. Everyone can have an opinion but until the cage door closes nobody really knows. On Saturday we’ll see a fight which 18 months ago everybody could predict but now nobody can.

Podcaster, lead MMA writer and analyst for SevereMMA. Host of the SevereMMA podcast, out every Sunday. Economics and Mathematics graduate from UCC. Also write for Sherdog. Previously of hov-mma and fightbooth. As heard on 2FM, Red FM, Today FM and more. Follow me on twitter for updates @SeanSheehanBA and on Facebook