After two unsuccessful shots at gold, Featherweight contender Brian Ortega will attempt to prove he still belongs among the 145-pound elite this Saturday afternoon (July 16, 2022) when he squares off with Yair Rodriguez inside Long Island’s UBS Arena.
An incredible rise that earned him five post-fight bonuses in seven UFC appearances gave way to a 1-2 skid for “T-City,” and those losses featured some of the gnarliest beatings you’re likely to see in the modern Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) era. Despite this, he’s continued to display the unbreakable tenacity and propensity for out-of-nowhere heroics that carried him through the ranks in the first place. With division champion, Alexander Volkanovski, considering a move up to 155 pounds, now’s the time to get his name out there for when that vacancy needs filling.
Here’s how he can do that ...
Like his grappling, Ortega’s switch-hitting striking is all about provoking his opponents into making mistakes and capitalizing in decisive fashion.
If given room to operate, he’s often content to pump his jab, add in the occasional straight left/right, and land thudding kicks to the body and legs. If forced to pursue, he’ll go for long, linear rushes, shifting stance mid-combo. He does a nice job of mixing up his head and body attacks as well, and his durability gives him free rein to keep his offense going regardless of what’s coming his way.
The good stuff, however, comes when he backs up. His visually unspectacular style belies remarkably good timing with his counters, which combines with his willingness to meet oncoming opponents head-on to multiply the impact. After struggling with Frankie Edgar’s in-and-out movement for most of the first round, he got “The Answer” to walk into a left elbow that scrambled his circuits and set up the death uppercut that polished off Edgar.
The spinning elbow that sealed his victory against Chan Sung Jung wasn’t a fluke, either. On the contrary, he attempted the same twice against Max Holloway, but this one landed perfectly. His opportunism also allowed him to score one of his trademark comebacks against Clay Guida with a vicious knee right as “The Carpenter” ducked down.
His offense hasn’t been in the news as much as his defense of late, however, and Holloway exploited every shortcoming in “T-City’s” game. Ortega’s tendency to bring his jab back low and keep his non-punching hand out of position to defend his face allowed Holloway to blast him with cross counters and most any other punch he wanted when Ortega fell short. This is especially prominent when Ortega backs up, as he’ll do so with his hands low for the sake of trying to counter. Since Ortega usually moves in straight lines outside of the occasional ill-advised pivot, Holloway was free to either punish Ortega as the latter tried to press forward or march in, draw out a counter, and immediately answer with combinations.
He did a better job of covering up under fire against Jung, but that was largely due to Jung’s unwillingness to launch sustained offense after running into that elbow. Alexander Volkanovski found the mark on multiple occasions by meeting Ortega’s southpaw jab with a lead right, then closing the distance with a hard left behind it before Ortega’s hand could get back up to defend his chin.
Also, he doesn’t check low kicks.
Essentially, Ortega needs to scare opponents off with counters to prevent them from closing the gap and get their respect with his power on the advance, because his chin is going to be there for those willing to stand in the fire with him.
For all his skill on the mat, Ortega landed all of one takedown in his first seven UFC bouts. Usually, he’s content to bully opponents until they try to take him down. That said, he’s certainly able to force the issue, having successfully downed extremely stout counter-wrestlers in Holloway and Volkanovski.
At a distance, he’s fond of shooting as his opponents step in, often looking to scoop up their lead leg. Once he hits the fence, he’s got a nice array of trips to complete the takedowns. Of note is his ability to manipulate opponents’ hand positioning to his benefit; he had a very nice sequence against Holloway where he backed him to the fence with shifting combos, fired a quick double jab to keep Holloway’s hands up, then immediately locked his hands for a successful double-leg.
I wouldn’t call him an “overpowering” takedown artist, but he’s good enough to catch people unawares.
A term I like to (over)use when discussing grappling is “venomous,” and that fits Ortega to a tee. He truly needs only the slightest opportunity to turn your neck into modern art.
Perhaps his best asset is his incredible awareness of when his opponent’s head is in danger. He’s also quite good at engineering those situations himself, often attacking as his opponents try to stand against the fence. Two particular incidents stand out:
- He actually caught Cub Swanson twice with the exact same setup. When Swanson tied up, Ortega hit him with knees to the body until he bent just slightly forward enough for Ortega to loop his arm over Swanson’s head. The first time led to an anaconda choke that would have gotten Swanson but for the bell, the second to the guillotine that finally forced the tap.
- Against Volkanovski, Ortega caught a naked low kick and knocked “The Great” over with a straight left. The millisecond Volkanovski got to his knees to try and stand, Ortega had the wherewithal to not only latch onto his neck but jump directly into full mount.
Though the guillotine’s the star of the show, Ortega’s triangle earned him his nickname for a reason. If Volkanovski had been any dryer, he wouldn’t have come close to escaping Ortega’s squeeze.
If there’s a weakness to his BJJ, it’s an apparent lack of options against ground-and-pound outside of submissions. Volkanovski absolutely beat the stuffing out of him from guard, and after escaping the triangle, he was able to launch standing-to-ground strikes with impunity. That may have been due to Ortega emptying his tank in pursuit of the submission, but it does suggest a similar issue to his striking where his offense is often his only defense.
Yair Rodriguez doesn’t have the composure and consistency to exploit Ortega’s flaws the way Holloway and Volkanovski did, and his penchant for spinning and flying moves could give plenty of opportunities for Ortega to get his ground game going. At the same time, the power and variety at Rodriguez’s disposal will make every engagement a nail-biter for “T-City.” The chances will be there for him; he just needs to survive long enough to make good on them.
Patrick L. Stumberg is an MMA and boxing analyst with more than 10 years of experience. He has been refereeing and judging amateur boxing in South Texas since 2017 while also receiving certification as an MMA official.
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