Submission ace, Brian Ortega, will look to dethrone Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Featherweight kingpin, Alexander Volkanovski, this Saturday (Sept. 25, 2021) at UFC 266 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.
It is mind-blowing to consider that Ortega achieved a huge amount of success — a 14-0 (1) run up to a title shot, to be specific — while training with less than a full mixed martial arts (MMA) team. The Max Holloway shellacking proved to be a wake up call though, proving that even immense talent is not enough to defeat the absolute best. Ortega took some time, went back to the drawing board, and returned a completely different fighter against Chan Sung Jung. It was a brilliant performance, one that completely reinvigorated his title hopes.
Let’s take a closer look at his new and improved skill set:
Though we only have one fight to go on, it is currently essential to look at Ortega’s kickboxing as two separate styles divided by that Holloway loss.
Prior to the “Blessed” defeat, Ortega was all about pressure and boxing. Keeping his lead hand low and trying to hide behind his shoulder, Ortega would attack foes from that position and try to block rather than backing off, allowing him to fire back. For the most part, this allowed him a roughly 50-50 trade of shots. Faced with a far superior and craftier boxer in Max Holloway, however, hiding behind the shoulder failed him.
Regardless, 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. On the flip side, Holloway capitalized on Ortega’s focus on pulling back and returning by countering the counter, slipped that big shot from Ortega and firing back a combination.
Even prior to the Holloway loss, Ortega was beginning to adjust his style to incorporate more hand fighting. Once occupying a hand, Ortega will fire at the body, work a flashing jab, or step into an elbow. It’s an effective newer wrinkle to his pressure game.
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.
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.
Now, let’s move onto Ortega 2.0, who debuted against “The Korean Zombie.”
First and foremost, there was an entire stylistic shift in Ortega. He did not try to walk the power puncher down and engage him in a scrap. Instead, Ortega kept his distance, making use of his rangy physique with an entirely new set of tools.
Ortega had never circled the cage and picked his foe apart from Southpaw previous to the fight, but he pulled off that strategy expertly against a genuinely great striker. Ortega did not allow Jung to set his feet and start ripping combinations at any point. Each time Jung tried to plant himself, Ortega would snap a jab (GIF), stick a left to the mid-section, or fire a nice low kick, then quickly return to moving out of range.
Ortega completely upset Jung’s rhythm.
As Jung grew more desperate, Ortega’s counters found their mark. He interrupted kicks and lunges with clean punches, setting his own feet while Jung broke stance to chase (GIF). The premier example came in the second round, when Ortega evaded a lunging left hook before spinning directly into the perfect elbow counter to floor his opponent (GIF). Ortega created a situation where Jung was getting picked apart while trying to fight measured and then brutalized when aggressive, which proved a miserable night at the office for the South Korean.
It was genuinely an unrecognizable striking performance from “T-City.”
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. Against Jung, Ortega’s control of range allowed him to set up his takedowns efficiently, using ducking under his opponent’s swings or circling around until Jung’s back was to the fence.
Credit to Ortega, he did manage to briefly drag Holloway down to the mat on a couple of occasions, which is more than several credentialed wrestlers have managed. His technique was simple enough, as Ortega shot for double legs along the fence. Given his similar stature and length to the Hawaiian, Ortega found better success in connecting his hands and landing the (momentary) takedowns.
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 the triangle choke is responsible for four of his six submission finishes.
Ortega does not consistently 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.
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 — a strategy that has proven a strength for him. 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 (yet another black belt) 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 stay tight, 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.
That same strategy worked great against Kron Gracie recently! Yet 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 showed vast improvement last time out, but it remains to be seen if he can play his outside game vs. one of the division’s best pressure fighters. This has the makings of an epic scrap, and typically, Ortega tends to find great opportunities in such fights.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 266 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPNEWS/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.
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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.