Opinion: UFC 231 Pre-Fight Analysis – Max Holloway vs. Brian Ortega

With Max Holloway set to defend the UFC featherweight title against Brian Ortega this weekend, it’s time to take an in-depth look at how the two stars match up.

For my fight analysis, I’ll cover a multitude of variables for each fighter and how they’ll clash, while trying to avoid putting you to sleep while I do it.

John Danaher on Joe Rogan’s JRE MMA show describes the three keys of winning the majority of your fights as dictating the setups, the pace, and change of direction. Holloway and Ortega are two shining examples of this in action. Holloway’s volume striking will likely be ramping up the pace and speed of direction change. Why I hear you ask? Holloway’s volume striking has the ability to determine the direction of the fight, due to the minimum requirements needed to execute a tactic. That said, Ortega possesses an equally unpredictable movement as a part of a well-rounded set of offence tools.

Holloway’s Strengths

max holloway

The key to Holloway’s effectiveness is pressure. In the Hawaiian’s pair of fights against Jose Aldo, he uses every inch of his reach to poke at Jose. Through maintaining this pressure, he prevents himself from moving backwards, usually strafing while punching. When he picks his shots, he pushes forward. If momentum is gained through a successful combination, the volume striking commences. Same with Lawler vs Dos Anjos when RDA caught Lawler, pushed him to the cage, and performed a flurry of punches for 20+ secs. Why does he do this? The average opponent’s natural reaction, when faced with relentless attacking, is to reciprocate this pace of attack. This is how UFC lightweight Tony Ferguson engages with his opponents,  most recently with Anthony Pettis.

Holloway combines the pace with the pressure to entice opponents to give their all, sapping his opponent’s energy reserves, the 26-year-old then capitalizes on their weary states with volume punches. If the champion plans to use volume striking on Ortega, he has to answer the following questions: Can he assert enough pressure onto Ortega to establish a perimeter for volume striking? If so, can his volume combinations be enough to wear Ortega down for follow-ups? If this happens, can his flurries be enough to overwhelm Ortega?

Holloway also holds wins through grappling, handing a guillotine choke loss to both Andre Fili and Cub Swanson. His submission wins have come largely from reactionary grappling, acting in defence and securing the hold, whereas Ortega’s majority of submissions came from active grappling efforts via pressure and setups, which we will get into later.

In Holloway’s fight with Ricardo Lamas, he showed effective takedown defence in round one, gaining partial control of Lamas’s back not only to prevent further work into a dominant position but also to potentially set Lamas up for a submission. In the second round, he defends against a single-leg takedown from Lamas and then capitalized on his opponent’s position from committing on the takedown in order to deliver a guillotine, dominating Lamas in back mount for the remainder of the round. He also used defence to guide himself out of the clinch near the cage in Round 3, shifting his weight to the left to push Lamas off to gain enough room to manoeuvre out of the clinch.

Ortega’s Strengths

UFC Fight Night: Weigh-in

For Ortega, footwork and pressure breaks via heavy but efficient punching will be the key to threatening Holloway and cause him to second guess his strikes. Holloway showed recently that he has heavy hands, but Ortega has shown K.O power of his own. Although he doesn’t display his striking power often, the notable KO victories over Clay Guida and Frankie Edgar are enough to take his stand-up seriously.

The best defence he has against volume striking, in my opinion, is his grappling. Both fighters are BJJ practitioners; Ortega being a black belt at Black Belt Surfing and Holloway being a purple belt at Gracie Technics. However, not all belts are equal as they don’t take into account an individual’s abilities, both in physical prowess, or fight IQ. So removing their belt colours, let’s go over a couple of his grappling highlights.

In his fight with Diego Brandao, the California native showed the world that he is an expert at transitioning to other submissions, switching from a guillotine choke to a triangle choke.

In his victories over both Swanson and Renato Moicano, Ortega demonstrated he is adept in the offence. For Swanson, Ortega dominated the direction and setups by switch-hitting, guiding him toward the cage.  Once the setup is complete, Ortega’s first and second submission attempts involved getting the over-under hooks. The 27-year-old capitalizes on Swanson’s forward offence with an over-under, then quickly transitions to a D’arce choke. In the 2nd Round, Ortega guides him to the cage and attempts a shoot, and goes to work on the over-under hooks and after winning the pommel game, he wraps his arm around his neck and goes for the Guillotine.



Holloway and Ortega bring pressure to their opponents in similar ways.  Both fighters use switch-hitting and combinations to establish pressure. This, however, this leads to longer exchanges. This is doubly troubling since both use little defence and absorb blows from their opponents as the cost for draining their energy and finishing them in later rounds.

What differs is their approach. Holloway does the same thing, but he also taunts his opponents whether with gestures or talking to them. He also drops his guard down to provoke an attack, which will be dodged or countered, thereby draining the attacker’s energy. The provocation approach to fighting can leave its user vulnerable to successful retaliation, as it did when Holloway fought Aldo the second time and Aldo landed a clean uppercut at the end of Round 1.

Another weakness in both fighters is that they do not tuck their chins, although it is essential to their evasive movement. While it is effective in maintaining balance in movement, it is dangerous as their chins are exposed to any punch or kick. It is a trade-off for mobility that is crucial to their exertion of pressure.

What is consistent in both Holloway’s and Ortega’s last two matches is that neither check low kicks. Jose Aldo found opportunities to land them in the rematch against Holloway, and Cub Swanson used them against Ortega. If one wishes to gain the advantage in striking, low attacks are where to start.

Roads to Victory

Holloway by KO/TKO

If Holloway catches Ortega with his striking and follows up as he did with Aldo, the victory will be his. Holloway’s winning condition with volume striking will depend on the variability of attack. In the Lamas fight, he mixed up the striking with jumping kicks, spinning back kicks, and switching between top and bottom attack focuses. He’ll have to rely on those to set up for a clean blow.

Holloway by Submission

Holloway is adept in BJJ. His submission game through reactionary and potentially active means will be the key to victory.

Holloway by Decision

If Ortega maintains his cardio and can withstand the flurries but is unable to sufficiently keep Holloway at bay, a decision victory is likely.

Ortega by KO/TKO

Setting up Holloway for any strike will allow the opportunity for a knockout, as it was in his recent victory over Edgar. Ortega’s KO and TKO victories are proof enough that he possesses the ability to secure a finish.

Ortega by Submission

This is the most likely outcome for Ortega given the majority of the UFC victories on his record have come this way. Ortega holds the advantage when it comes to BJJ and can most likely out-maneuver Holloway in the ground game.

Ortega by Decision

This condition depends on Ortega’s pressure. As we’ve just gone over, his calm demeanour, constant shifts in his stance, and aptitude for both stand up and ground game will give Holloway a hard time. Ortega has experience with fast-paced strikers in Clay Guida and Renato Moicano. In both situations, he pressured them with grappling and prevailed with submission victories.

Nothing that Holloway delivers will be new to Ortega, as Ortega has faced punchers just as swift and powerful. His chin has been tested plenty despite having very few matches in 2 years. Although Holloway has delivered knockouts,  three times in two years were merely TKO’s.

My Prediction

Unless Holloway saps Ortega’s cardio with body shots early or can compromise his stand up and Jiu-Jitsu by attacking the legs, Ortega will be taking the win.  Judging by their similar styles alone, this fight is too close to decide a clear winner.

Both fighters use unpredictable movement, constant stance changes, via orthodox and unorthodox head movements, feints, irregular punching patterns, from light jabs to full power kicks and even jumping kicks.  It is a battle of whose unpredictable striking and the game plan is the most effective? Can one’s style be executed at the right time?

December 8 in Toronto will hold the answers.

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