Submission master, Brian Ortega, will square off with kickboxing ace, Max Holloway, this Saturday (Dec. 8, 2018) at UFC 231 inside Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Ortega’s work inside the Octagon is a beautiful example of an immensely talented prospect fully figuring out the nooks-and-crannies of his approach to combat. Early on, Ortega faced a trio of more experienced foes and difficult fights, losing rounds in the process, but ultimately being able to make the necessary adjustments late to capitalize. For an undefeated prospect, he faced quite a bit of adversity. The end result has shined brightly in his last two fights. In the two most high-profile match ups of his career — at the time, Renato Moicano was not yet known to be as fantastic as we now understand — Ortega’s skills and strategy fully aligned: he finished Cub Swanson and Frankie Edgar ruthlessly with a much shorter adjustment period.
Let’s take a look at the surging contender’s skill set:
One year ago, I described Ortega’s kickboxing as “enthusiastic and effective,” word choice I still stand by to some extent. However, I’d add that in the two fights since that was written, Ortega has shown a much better understanding of range and counter punching. Historically, 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. Usually, Ortega chooses to maintain that defensive position and try to block rather than backing off, which allows him 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.
In his last pair of fights, Ortega has done a much better job of competing at range, whereas previously his kickboxing strategy could be condensed to a sequence.
- Throw some power punches or a weird kick and hope it lands
- Get hit pretty hard
- Try to hit ‘em back even harder
Step two is where the real growth has occurred. Against Swanson, Ortega did not immediately force the issue in the pocket. Instead, he worked behind the jab and a hard low kick, and he actually did better work than Swanson at range for the first few minutes of the fight. Swanson regained the kickboxing edge by moving into the pocket, but that also eventually lead to the clinch and his demise.
Ortega’s improvement at distance changed Swanson’s strategy and caused “Killer Cub” to fall into his strengths.
On the whole, 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 finally able to time his head movement and meet him with a brutal knee (GIF).
Ortega’s victory over Frankie Edgar is another great example even if the fight didn’t last as long. Ortega worked behind the jab and occasional flurries but was having difficulty landing on the ever-dancing Edgar, but he did manage to pick up the timing of Edgar’s forward blitz. The shorter man was staying in front of Ortega for just a bit too long when looking to throw combinations — a small opening that allowed Ortega to fold over a lead hand elbow and stun the former champion (GIF).
Then, finishing instincts took over.
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 super interested in trying to offensively wrestle, although he’ll occasionally work the standard Brazilian jiu-jitsu guy single-leg to back take attack. 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 Brazilian 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.
In this week’s technique highlight, we explain a bit about Ortega’s offensive bottom game.
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.
Fairly early in his UFC career, Ortega strangled Diego Brandao in the third round to secure his first UFC triangle choke. As Brandao tried to frantically free himself from Ortega’s grasp in the clinch, “T-City” managed to catch a d’arce choke standing, something he’s quite nasty at. Fearing the results of that choke, Brandao fell to his back (GIF) and would up in something of a mounted guillotine choke. As continued trying to fight his way to safety, Ortega passed an arm by and rolled to his back for a triangle choke instead.
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 yet another black belt in Thiago Tavares, Ortega was able to quickly roll his foe into mount with the threat of the choke.
Finally, Ortega has never looked more dangerous than when he nearly executed Cub Swanson (black belt, just in case you’re curious) twice in a single fight by jumping on front chokes while standing. Both exchanges began the same, as Swanson wound up in the clinch, tried to mind his P’s and Q’s, and was still strangled unwillingly. The second exchange in the clinch was more prolonged and showed that Swanson did many of the correct things to avoid any chance of Ortega jumping on his neck: Swanson framed the hips, kept good posture, and landed strikes that Ortega was driving into. Ortega only needed a split-second each time, a small opportunity to get the his tricep on the back of Swanson’s head/neck. Once that happened, Swanson’s posture was broken, and the ensuing d’arce or guillotine was brutal (GIF).
Ortega ranks highly among the most entertaining fighters in the world, an amazing finisher who’s more than willing to jump into the fire and generally takes risk. Holloway could be described similarly, and this fight is practically guaranteed to be must-watch MMA. Plus, with both men being just 27 years old, the result will have lasting effects on both the Lightweight and Featherweight divisions.
MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 231 fight card on fight night (click here), starting with the Fight Pass “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on FOX Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter 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.