Ortega vs. Edgar is a fight you had no idea you wanted so badly until UFC 222 put it on the table.
Adam Hunger, Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
With two feet of different sizes and one eye much lower than the other, the reanimated mishmash of corpses that is UFC 222 stumbles over the horizon to inflict itself upon the fight world this weekend. While Cris Cyborg vs. Nobody has proven an effective draw on televised events, it’s hard to imagine even the most hardcore MMA fan being happy about laying down $60 to watch her fight Yana Kunitskaya—certainly not when it’s so easy to find actual snuff films on the internet without paying for the privilege. There was even a brief, terrifying period where Andrei Arlovski vs. Stefan Struve stood as the co-main event. But Brian Ortega vs. Frankie Edgar has come from seemingly nowhere to provide one of those matchups you had no idea you wanted so badly until it was placed on the table.
The original headliner of UFC 222 was Max Holloway’s title defense against Edgar, but Holloway had to withdraw due to injury. Holloway is in the strange position of having only just won the title and achieved wider recognition and acclaim, but he's also already beaten almost everyone making progress toward a title shot in the featherweight division. Edgar stands out as the biggest omission on Holloway’s incredible curriculum vitae.
Edgar, meanwhile, has always been good enough to beat everyone except Jose Aldo. With Holloway beating Aldo twice and removing him from the title picture, Edgar had a chance to swoop in and pick up his second UFC belt, but Brian Ortega has quietly worked his way into the title picture and now stands at No. 3 on the UFC’s rankings (No. 4 if you include the champion in the rankings in a way that isn’t totally unintuitive). Ortega vs. Edgar seemed to take up zero space in anyone’s head until it became a possibility. Now it stands as an intriguing matchup between the old guard and a guy with the old-school guard.
We have covered Frankie Edgar so many times that you likely have a good grasp on what he does. Lots of movement, lots of feints, building those off feints to hide legitimate strikes, and building off legitimate strikes to make takedowns happen. If he gets top position, he isn’t going to let you up easily, and against many good fighters it only takes him one well-timed takedown to win a round.
Brian Ortega, on the other hand, is someone who we haven’t really had a chance to examine at all. He is undefeated in MMA, spare a No Contest that resulted from a failed drug test. Sadly this was for an actual steroid, drostanolone, and not for a cheeky puff on the wrong kind of cigarette. This was also in the pre-USADA era, when everyone was walking around with capped deltoids and failing a drug test was more an indication of simplemindedness, but to let that distract you from Ortega’s very obvious talents would be a mistake.
Ortega arrived in the UFC by merit of his grappling. In his first eight fights he scored three triangle choke victories, and the triangle became something of a calling card. Since arriving in the UFC in July of 2014, none of Ortega’s fights have gone the distance and perhaps that is for the best. Ortega’s striking has gone from spasmodic flailing to what you could probably call serviceable, but it is still full of glaring deficiencies and bad habits.
Ortega seems to want to fight like an old-school cutie from the golden age of boxing, jabbing and dropping his lead hand low to shoulder-roll off the returns. The part he can’t actually do consistently is the shoulder-rolling. From Clay Guida to Renato Moicano to Cub Swanson, anyone who has pressed in on him with combinations after his jab has caught him clean, often multiple times in a row.
Ortega’s loading up his right uppercut from behind him is another constant cause of grief. A long right uppercut is an invitation for counters, but there are fighters who can get away with it like the rangy and mobile Alexander Gustafsson. Ortega, however, throws it from directly in front of his opponent and often gets cracked while he does so.
Ortega’s ability to take a shot and his jab have carried him through the striking exchanges with decent scrappers, though, and his bodywork against Moicano in the last round of that fight was definitely an eye-opener to how smart he can be, even if he doesn’t have the technical nuts and bolts tightened up yet. Furthermore, by punching straight the majority of the time, Ortega’s height and reach can protect him a bit when the blows come back—he tends to be on the end of his opponent’s counter swings even when he is out of position.
But Ortega’s game isn’t about boxing opponents up beautifully, it is about walking them down and convincing them to go after his hips. Time after time Ortega has snatched up a guillotine or punched through to an anaconda choke and finished a fight in an instant off a poor shot.
Ortega often can force the same opportunity by getting an over-under clinch and waiting for the opponent to throw his hips back, then snap the guillotine on over the top.
This more fluid Rafa Mendes style of front headlock play, wherein the attacker will end up head-to-head with the opponent, looking up at the ring lights, won our Slacky Award for Breakthrough Technique of the Year in 2017. Cub Swanson was saved by the bell as Ortega pursued the anaconda choke in round one, and Diego Brandao was mounted and finished with a triangle from the same position as Ortega rolled back over his shoulder.
Ortega’s guard game provides the most interesting question in this matchup with Edgar. Ortega’s wanting footwork and constant forward movement suggest that Edgar can get him to the mat, but if Ortega fails to snatch up and finish a guillotine on the way down he could be stuck underneath a veteran ground-and-pounder. Edgar has seen most types of guards in MMA and hasn’t really struggled much against them. B.J. Penn provided what was thought to be the epitome of the MMA guard, focusing on the trinity of sweep, submit, or stand up. Submissions from the bottom were rare for Penn but he could almost always stand up by threatening them. Ortega is a fighter who very, very rarely tries to get up from the bottom and that is always interesting.
Every so often you will see some prospect storming through the lower end of the UFC’s cards and picking up gorgeous sweeps and submissions the moment he is taken down—and the commentator will say, “He doesn’t care if he is taken down,” or “He wants you to take him down!” The last time Frankie Edgar heard that was when Yair Rodriguez was becoming the hot property at featherweight. Rodriguez’s philosophy was to constantly attack from the bottom with triangle and armbar attempts, and the occasional overhead sweep if his opponent stood up. Edgar, who spent most of his time on top of opponents keeping them away from the fence so that they could not wall walk back up, decided to smash Rodriguez against the fence and you saw exactly how effective the guard is as an attacking position when the bottom man cannot move effectively.
The exact same thing happened for three rounds between Goiti Yamauchi and Michael Chandler in Bellator a few weeks back. Yamauchi kept holding the closed guard, and Chandler drove him to the fence and kept either stacking up into the fence or driving his chin underneath Yamauchi. The fight was a very easy and convincing decision victory for Chandler.
Alexander Volkanovski’s last opponent, Jeremy Kennedy, suffered a convincing TKO loss, but he hit upon the best option when trying to play the bottom of closed guard along the fence. After some time being smashed and held down, he opened his guard, put in the knee shield, and Volkanovski began passing. The cage served as a barrier to aid the bottom man then: Volkanovski couldn’t sprint around to north-south and he ended up advancing just to half guard, whereupon Kennedy tried to come up on the single leg takedown. Ultimately it didn’t work out for Kennedy, but he was making stuff happen and not content to get slowly beaten senseless from closed guard.
What Ortega does very well from the bottom—which Penn and many others did not—is use his elbows. Not simply swinging upwards, though. Ortega will use his feet and hips to constantly push and pull his opponent off balance. Thiago Tavares tried to tripod up on Ortega, Ortega gave him the old push-pull and had Tavares falling straight onto his elbows. By the second round, Tavares had a pair of cuts in almost perfect symmetry, high above his eyes, and looked as though he was about to sprout a pair of horns.
In this bout you have two extremes of featherweight physique. Edgar is squat and stubby, Ortega is tall and rangy. Those are Schaubian observations, but there’s more to it than that. Edgar’s game makes the most of his stature. The shorter man tends to lose out on range but is quicker on the level change. Edgar is masterful at working up and down in combinations and at ducking in to pick up that lead leg. Often Edgar will stab in the body jab a few times before ducking in, slamming his palm into the lead shoulder, and then picking up the opponent’s lead leg as he forces him back. Ortega’s game is one that consistently punishes opponents for their level changes.
The first question in this bout is how much Edgar can mitigate the guillotine, anaconda choke, and rice bale rolls off said lockups. Edgar is brilliant at timing his shots, but shots seem to be all that Ortega is waiting on. Every time we talk about Edgar, we point out his tremendous sense of anticipation for what the opponent is thinking—as soon as he can convince opponents that they are in a kickboxing match, he’s in on their hips and never a moment sooner or later. In this bout you would hope to see him work more extensively on the feet because it is an area where he has plenty of advantages and it is the process of getting the fight to the floor wherein he stands to get caught. On the feet, he has more tools and experience, and on the ground he can make use of the cage to ride out his advantages and mitigate the threat of a triangle attempt.
While Ortega’s defense is porous and he gets hammered in the head clean in every bout, he can clearly take a tremendous shot. Swanson and Moicano had most success when they focused on hitting the body and kicking Ortega’s lazy lead leg. Peculiarly enough, Ortega has some stylistic similarities to B.J. Penn: he focuses on his jab, often stands pretty bladed, and can be slow on the turn. Against Penn, side steps followed by low kicks worked a treat, and side steps followed by head-body-head flurries. Ortega is nothing like the counter puncher that Penn was, but he will lean back into the shell when he sees something coming. Using the wide right to the body—particularly the kidney when Ortega turns completely side on—Edgar might be able to set up the later overhands that he scored on Penn and Urijah Faber as they leaned back to check hook. The lean back is also a perfect time to pound that lead leg as it is lightened and the opponent can be knocked off balance.
If he can get the takedowns, Edgar should play the part of the old-school wrestler. There is no point passing and creating scrambles against Ortega; pushing him to the fence in his guard and stacking his hips to deny him submission attempts seems like the best course of action. When Thiago Tavares did this, Ortega was forced to abandon the guard strategy and get up—but it took a while for him to realize this. But where Tavares was largely inactive on top along the fence, Edgar proved to be a whirlwind of offense when he put Yair Rodriguez there. Edgar’s lack of height again helps him here. He can assume that classic Kid Yamamoto position, standing in his opponent’s guard and still easily being able to punch their face. Except unlike Yamamoto he doesn’t have to worry about his man sliding out between the ropes—the fence does a great job of keeping his face in place.
Given that he wants to avoid the guillotine attempts as much as possible, it would be good to see Edgar picking up his usual single and standing up as quickly as possible. Against guys with great balance like B.J. Penn, he has been great at picking up the lead leg, standing up, and immediately flowing into a kick or punch as he releases his opponent’s leg.
Also in keeping with this idea of avoiding the guillotine, when Ortega ties up or Edgar finds himself in a clinch, it would probably be best for Edgar to stick to his man and focus on the Cheick Kongo no-risk-no-fun knees to the thigh. So many of Ortega’s opponents have found themselves in a clinch with him, tried retreating from the clinch, and got snapped into the guillotine. Edgar has the disadvantage of being short and barely an inch from underneath his man’s armpit when he’s upright; keeping his ear to his man and trying to keep Ortega’s back to the fence when he’s in close might save him a lot of hassle, even if it makes for a boring fight.
Edgar might be able to do his best work boxing on the counter. He's proven great at catch-and-pitch countering in exchanges. He’s not the biggest hitter (though he has surprised opponents before) but he works very well taking shots on his forearms, or slipping, and returning in combinations. Every time Urijah Faber threw an overhand at Edgar, Edgar blocked it, returned with an uppercut on the overcommitted Faber, and flurried into a combination.
Ortega’s attacks tend to go in one of two ways: he jabs and leans back into his non-shoulder-roll position, or he jabs and follows with an overhand, which takes him off balance. Returning off the jab with a low-high combination, preferably the right hook to the body on the closed side, and a left hook to the jaw behind Ortega’s right hand could be a moneymaker. Catching the right hand and returning with the right uppercut or right straight into the left hook could also work a treat. Counter combinations make the difference in high-level boxing matches—if you start throwing them at someone who is still mastering the rudiments, you have a great chance of overwhelming him and scaring him into passivity.
When we’re talking about these young guys who can take a 2x4 to the head and keep walking forward, it is always good to throw in a line or two about elbows. Walk onto a punch and you can keep going. Walk onto an elbow and there is a great chance of it splitting your head open and you having to contend with blood in your eyes for the rest of the bout.
For Ortega, there’s no point setting aside the things that he has been working on. His jab is fast, flicking, and heavy when he wants it to be. He also shows a powerful and decently quick body jab—something we lose our minds over because it is so rarely used well in MMA. Unfortunately he doesn’t build off that body jab very well, but that doesn’t take much work to do. A few good body jabs, and a body jab to the right straight upstairs is a classic. It’s probably better not to hold your breath for it in this bout, but if Ortega learns to feint low and go high with the lead hand—both as a jab and a lead hook—he will be far more threatening on the feet and able to actually build off his body jab in the style of Alexander Gustafsson and Junior dos Santos.
Ideally, Ortega would work up and down with the jab, stiff-arming Edgar’s chest, or cross-facing him as he steps in to counter, then uncorking the right hand in retaliation. Given his similarities to Luke Rockhold, both in stature within the division and in counter-submissions on the takedown attempt, this writer would love to see Ortega get busier with his kicks. Traditional low kicks against Edgar are always dangerous—he picks them up effortlessly—but body kicks and high kicks could work a treat. Ortega also has decent, if wild, stepping knees, which have the added bonus of taking him into an upright clinch more often than they simply give up the leg. Pushing into a standing clinch and looking to tire Edgar with knees along the fence might also present more chances to snag a guillotine or force a snap down.
The usual anti-wrestler tool kit could work well for Ortega if he wants to get some work in on the feet without having to contend with the takedown attempts. For that, the low-low round kick to the shin or calf is always money, and the low-line front kick or side kick to the lead knee. Edgar is generally light on his feet but keeps a wide stance to bounce around in, meaning a good kick can play havoc with his balance.
Really, Ortega is the unknown in this fight. Despite his lengthy undefeated streak, and handful of fights in the UFC, we just don’t know what he can do. Everything he adds is a pleasant surprise, but it’s hard to know if he has enough tools to deal with a fighter as rounded and experienced as Edgar. Most bizarrely, Ortega's own corner have called for takedowns in multiple rounds where he has proceeded to not attempt any. He really does seem almost a pure counter fighter in his grappling game. Whether he can start taking guys of Edgar’s level down on his own terms is another one of the many, many Brian Ortega facts that we just don’t know.
No doubt a victory over Edgar would be an enormous feather in Ortega’s cap and set up an extremely intriguing title fight with Max Holloway. Either way this fight goes down, it leads to another great Holloway matchup and that is what we were struggling to come up with a few months ago. Watch UFC 222 and get back here Monday for a rundown of all the interesting stuff that happened.