Ortega became the first man to stop Frankie Edgar at UFC 222, and Tomasz Narkun ended Mamed Khalidov's 14-match win streak.
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
As predicted, Brian Ortega and Frankie Edgar stole the show at UFC 222. Ortega became the first man to stop the legendarily hard-nosed Edgar, courtesy of a booming uppercut that began somewhere by the Earth’s core. Do not let the coup de grace overshadow the fight, though—we learned a great deal about Ortega, and a lot of it was very encouraging.
In our pre-fight Tactical Guide, we discussed Ortega’s boxing, which could be described as slick and sloppy in equal parts. We noted:
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.
Sure enough, each time Ortega retreated to the shoulder roll/stonewall position, Edgar shot in with a left hook to the body and a right hand high on the head, largely unaffected by Ortega’s defensive position.
Another of Ortega’s obvious habits—getting hit as he switches stances—was also on full display against Edgar, whether it was getting hammered by a right hand as he left his orthodox stance, or Edgar immediately picking up on Ortega’s new stance and getting outside his lead foot to double up on the right hand to the body and the head.
Edgar tried to work Ortega up and down with his level-changing flurries, but Ortega demonstrated a good stiff arm and better footwork than we are used to seeing from him. The stiff arm combined with his jab to provide a check on Edgar’s distance, an annoyance, and a power strike when he wanted it.
Edgar’s straight line charges meant that he could be checked with a palm on the face or shoulder, and his considerable height and reach disadvantages (which seemed to be drastically greater than billed on the UFC’s famously unreliable tale of the tape) meant that after he was done attacking he was still in range to be jabbed or double jabbed. By doubling and tripling his jab, Ortega could make the most out of his best weapon without opening himself up too much—the rest of his boxing arsenal is noticeably loopy.
It also offered a contrast to the desperate slog between Andrei Arlovski and Stefan Struve an hour earlier. Arlovski and Struve—neither of whom have thrown more than a handful of jabs in their UFC careers—took turns driving a finger into each other’s eyes in between tedious stalling along the fence. The fight demonstrated perfectly that there is a fine line between using a stiff arm well and committing a flagrant foul. It was also our fortnightly reminder of how desperate the heavyweight division is.
In the Tactical Guide we mentioned that Ortega’s excellent counter-takedown game—using the guillotine, the anaconda choke, and the rice bale-style roll-overs from those grips—would pair excellently with a more active kicking game. It has worked a treat for Luke Rockhold, who, when he isn’t check hooking, is kicking and looking for guillotines. Ortega only threw out a few kicks in this bout, but his first attempt showed how much use he could make of them. Edgar grabbed the leg, tried to move in for a takedown, and immediately had to tighten up his elbows and back out when Ortega started encircling his neck. The next time Ortega kicked, Edgar wasn’t nearly as keen to chase it back.
Ortega might be sloppy in his fundamentals, but he shows an aptitude for the hurting business: looking for body shots constantly, working with elbows on the lead and on the counter. It was a slick counter elbow that shook up Edgar and set the table for the finish. As Edgar moved in tight to square up and come up behind his left up-jab, Ortega caught him on the right side with a left elbow. It was picture perfect and punished Edgar for becoming a little predictable in his charges—the only way a fighter is dealing with that elbow is having their forearm very high or reacting in time and getting out of the way or rolling it off. Edgar had tunnel vision on what he was doing and was rocked to his boots
UFC 222 Stand Outs
Other top-notch performances on this card came from Sean O’Malley and Alexander Hernandez. Hernandez came in on two weeks notice to replace Bobby Green and found himself facing top-ten lightweight Beneil Dariush. Dariush, a brilliant grappler who learned to strike confidently and aggressively under Rafael Cordeiro, was surprised right from the start as Hernandez worked the crowd for cheap heat, kicking Dariush in the ribs off the glove touch. Hernandez moved extensively, switching stances, and after changing to a closed guard position stepped in to hammer Dariush with a straight that Dariush moved to counter just a little too late. An incredible performance for a young man who was completely unknown before the bout. If you didn’t already know that the lightweight division is the deepest and most cutthroat in MMA, Dariush vs. Hernandez should hammer it home.
O’Malley, meanwhile, brought a fun and commanding performance for two rounds before mangling his foot on a wild high kick. Unfortunately, Andre Soukhamthath was so pleased to finally get his own game going that he laid all over O’Malley in the final round, never realizing that if he had backed off and allowed the referee to force a restart on the feet, O’Malley wouldn’t have been able to continue. After 15 minutes we were treated to the bizarre sight of O’Malley receiving the decision victory, while laying flat on his back in agony, in the same spot he was when the final buzzer went.
Some are drawing parallels between O’Malley and McGregor, and it is certainly true that both make excellent use of an exaggerated distance and work well with their man along the fence. The pull counter that O’Malley hit certainly helped that comparison. Notice the subtle shoulder feint to draw a punch out of Soukhamthath. A few more questionable tattoos and the likeness will be uncanny.
Fight of the Night
The other notable fight from the weekend was the catchweight bout between KSW’s middleweight champion Mamed Khalidov and its light heavyweight champion Tomasz Narkun. We examined this bout extensively last week and suggested it might be worth your time. Now that it’s in the books we recommend even more heartily that you find it and enjoy it.
Khalidov, the best middleweight to never fight in the UFC, is 37 years old and he looked phenomenal in the early going against the young light heavyweight champion. The recklessness that has marked so many of his recent fights was held back and he did exactly what we called for in that pre-fight article: he led the taller man forward and met him with well-timed right hands. The first dropped Narkun to the mat.
Khalidov didn’t muck about in Narkun’s infamous guard and instead got back up. The moment Narkun joined him, a straight right dropped the light heavyweight champ again.
But as the first round gave way to the second, the wild man in Khalidov couldn’t resist the chance to play. Each time Narkun threw a combination, Khalidov would slip deep and jog out the side door. The jumping back kick counter made a brief appearance and Khalidov sent himself stumbling doing it again. In one instance, Khalidov took a combination, ran along the cage, and attempted to perform a no-look back kick at the pursuing Narkun while still running.
The last time Narkun made it to the third round he very obviously faded. He looked like a talented prospect and not a finished product. But Khalidov beat something special out of Narkun. In the third round, Narkun bit down on his mouthpiece, gave Khalidov none of the respect his power demanded, and got in the face of the wily old-timer. Something rattled Khalidov and he went to the fence. Narkun moved in and smashed knees and uppercuts against the covering middleweight champ before Khalidov bundled him to the mat. Taking a moment to recover his senses, his ear to Narkun’s chest, Khalidov was snagged in Narkun’s brilliant triangle and the fight was over.
This marked the end of Khalidov’s 14-fight winning streak stretching back to 2010, but it might have been the finest showing he has put on to date. For two rounds he painted a masterpiece against a bigger, younger opponent. Narkun, who so often gets by on raw talent, showed that extra something that a real champion should have. And as a catchweight fight this hurts neither man’s title reign—it was a super fight done right.