Third-round finishing machine, Brian Ortega, will battle longtime contender, Cub Swanson, this Saturday (Dec. 9, 2017) at UFC Fight Night 123 inside Save Mart Center in Fresno, California.
There are plenty of great prospects at 145 pounds, yet Ortega stands out. Part of it is definitely the fun factor, as two of his last four victories were awarded the “Fight of the Night” bonus. More interesting than that, however, is Ortega’s ability to stick to his approach regardless of what’s happening in the cage. He’s been down two rounds on the judges scorecard repeatedly in recent fights, but Ortega has a firm belief in his offense that has so far scored him the victory each and every time.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Two adjectives the come to mind when describing Ortega’s stand up approach are enthusiastic and dangerous. There are certainly technical holes to his attack, but Ortega has a lot on the positive side as well.
Pressure is the name of Ortega’s game. Given the choice, Ortega would compete entirely in the pocket. The California native mostly relies on his punches, and he moves very much like a boxer. Even on defense, Ortega commonly keeps his left hand low, relying on his shoulder or raised elbow to protect his chin.
Hiding behind his lead side doesn’t always work, but Ortega is tough as nails — physically and mentally — and is able to remain in range to fire back.
Firing back is a key component of Ortega’s game (GIF). Very rarely does “T-City” allow his opponent to land a power shot without an answer. He’ll eat jabs while moving forward, sure, but those strikes can be non-committal. If Ortega’s foe commits his weight to a punch or kick, it’s a safe bet that Ortega will return hard shots back regardless of whether his foe’s strikes crashed into his chin.
Recently, Ortega has adjusted his boxing style. Rather than constantly stand with his hands glued to him, Ortega will reach out and fight hands. Once occupying a hand, Ortega will fire at the body, work a flashing jab, or step into an elbow. Either way, it’s a wrinkle to his pressure game that helps ensure his opponent cannot rest.
Furthermore, Ortega’s body shots have become an increasingly large part of his attack. His left hook and overhand right make up the majority of his power shots to the head, and both of those strikes are usually defended with a high guard. Once his opponent is blocking high, Ortega will dig low, usually doubling up with same side strikes (i.e. left hook high-left to the body).
Body shots and pressure cause major fatigue, partially explaining those third-round finishes.
Another new element to Ortega’s kickboxing is his habit of feinting the takedown into punches. Ortega likes to tap the lead leg with his left hand before coming forward with a left hook. Alternatively, he’ll feint low and spin into an elbow.
Ortega definitely has a flair for the flashy as well. He’s found a home for that spinning elbow as a counter previously, jumped off the cage into a Superman punch, and will leap for flying knees given the chance. He’s reasonably successful with these low percentage techniques, which can be partially attributed to his complete lack of fear of the takedown.
In addition to that, Ortega has an instinctive knack for reading opponents and finding a home for shots. There’s no better example of that than his third-round finish over Clay Guida. Guida was up 2-0 on the scorecards and seemed to be just 20 seconds from victory, but Ortega was able to time his head movement and meet him with a brutal knee (GIF).
Ortega would be an even more effective striker if he were only to kick more. He’ll occasionally throw a spin kick, which is nice and all, but in particular he has landed some seriously hard low kicks in the past. He just has to throw more, as his pocket boxing/pressure approach would really benefit from some Justin Gaethje-style low kicks. It’s not like he’s afraid of being taken down, and destroying the lead leg would help him break his opponent down.
Defensively, Ortega is absolutely a hittable fighter. He does a decent job of rolling with shots and hiding behind his shoulders, but he still gets hit cleanly fairly often. He’s slowly improving there, but at the moment Ortega is just too durable to be phased. Last time out, Renato Moicano hit him with absurd combinations, smacking Ortega with five or six punches then digging a kick to the body or legs to finish it off. Neither Ortega’s face nor fighting style showed the slightest reaction, and while that will someday get him in trouble, it’s pretty demoralizing at the moment.
Ortega is definitely not a wrestler. He’s not bad at it so much as he has little interest. Offensively, Ortega will occasionally latch onto the body lock to either slam his foe or take the back in very jiu-jitsu fashion.
Defensively, Ortega doesn’t always try very hard to stop the takedown. Most of the time, he tries to catch the neck or fling up a triangle rather than stop the shot. When he does commit to defending the takedown, he has an actual chance to stop the shot, but his defensive wrestling is still not great.
Ortega has been training in jiu-jitsu since he was a child, and he’s currently a black belt under Rener Gracie. He didn’t earn the nickname “Triangle City” by accident, as it’s responsibly for four of his six submission finishes.
Ortega does not usually land takedowns, which means he is not often in top position. His debut is an exception, as Ortega was able to land a takedown and jump to the back during a scramble. It was simple from there, as Ortega controlled the wrist, slid his arm under the chin, and completed the rear naked choke (GIF).
Ortega’s guard game is extremely fun to watch. First and foremost, Ortega is climbing up the ranks as one of the best at striking from his back. Opposite Thiago Tavares, Ortega opened up some seriously nasty gashes with elbows from his back. To land them, Ortega would frame with one hand, create distance, and then let his opponent move forward into an elbow from the non-framing side.
The reason Ortega’s guard play is so effective is because he makes great use of the open guard. More often than not, Ortega will have his foot or feet pressed on his opponent’s hip(s). Ortega is kicking away and creating distance, but he isn’t fully trying to get back to his feet. Instead, he’s forcing his opponent to push into him, as that’s the easiest way to keep him on the mat.
The problem is that Ortega wants to be there.
As his opponent pushes in, Ortega has a ton of options. He can release the hip pressure and jump at a triangle. If his opponent is careless with their arm position, Ortega will quickly swivel for an arm bar. At any point, Ortega can slice with an elbow or whack at his opponent with a back fist. The elbows tend to damage foes as they come in, whereas the back fist motivates his opponent to close distance so he doesn’t keep getting punched in the face.
Check out some of the slick guard play in this .GIF below, which shows a pair of triangle attempts, the kicking off at the hips, and a nice sweep.
Aside from his guard, Ortega has a really nasty guillotine that is his go-to takedown defense. It’s not overly complicated — pretty much lock around the neck and squeeze from full guard — but Ortega very obviously has the finishing skill of a lifelong grappler. His last opponent, Moicano, was also a jiu-jitsu black belt, but he didn’t last more than a couple of seconds under that squeeze (GIF). Against another black belt in Thiago Tavares, Ortega was able to quickly roll his foe into mount with the threat of the choke.
Ortega’s other submission finish in the Octagon came against a third jiu-jitsu black belt, Diego Brandao, and was an excellent example of transitional jiu-jitsu that finished with his trademark triangle. It’s also the subject of this week’s technique highlight!
At some point, Ortega’s habit of consistently losing rounds has to cost him, right? ... right? It’s hard to say, as Ortega has only been getting more skilled and more dangerous as the competition level rises. He faces his most experienced and most powerful opponent yet, a man who could be the one to win the brawl. At the same time, “T-City” could also rise into title contention if he outlasts the older man or tricks him into a submission.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur champion who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.