Yahoo Sports' Kevin Iole picks the winner of Max Holloway vs. Brian Ortega title fight

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports

TORONTO – The featherweight title fight Saturday at the Scotiabank Centre in the main event of UFC 231 between champion Max Holloway and unbeaten No. 1 contender Brian Ortega is a glimpse of what MMA could be like in five, maybe 10 years.

It pits two guys with incredible quickness, conditioning and athleticism who excel in all areas of the game.

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They see things differently than most. Ortega has made a habit of seeming vulnerable and losing rounds early only to roar back and impressively finish. Holloway has already fought Jose Aldo twice as well as Anthony Pettis, Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier and Cub Swanson, among others, and he was willing to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov on less than a week’s notice.

“Why wouldn’t I?” Holloway asks plaintively. “I want to be the best. Those are the kinds of fights you have to take.”

The fight is so even, oddsmakers have just let the bettors decide. At the Westgate Las Vegas sportsbook, Holloway is minus-120 and Ortega is minus-110. At the MGM Grand sportsbook, Ortega is minus-120 and Holloway is minus-110.

One could rightly say that the fight will come down to Holloway’s striking vs. Ortega’s jiu-jitsu, but it’s far more complex than that.

“These guys are complete mixed martial artists and they’re good at everything, which is why people are so fired up for this fight,” UFC president Dana White said.

Max Holloway (left) and Brian Ortega face off during the UFC 231 press conference at the Winter Garden Theatre on Dec. 5, 2018, in Toronto. (Getty Images)
Max Holloway (left) and Brian Ortega face off during the UFC 231 press conference at the Winter Garden Theatre on Dec. 5, 2018, in Toronto. (Getty Images)

The one advantage that Holloway has is in caliber of opposition. He’s 19-3, with his losses coming in 2012 in his UFC debut to Poirier and in 2013 in back-to-back fights against Bermudez and McGregor.

Imagine the excitement that would surround a Holloway-Poirier or Holloway-McGregor fight today. Both would be mega-headliners. He also destroyed Aldo, one of the 10 best in the sport’s history, not once but twice, and made Aldo look old.

He’s won 12 in a row since that 2013 loss to McGregor with the winning streak stretching over five years.

Ortega hasn’t beaten that kind of opposition, but Frankie Edgar is a former champion and Renato Moicano has the look of a future champion. And, notably, Ortega has yet to taste defeat, and in a fight in which everything is this even, the confidence that comes with not having lost will be a huge factor.

It’s just that Holloway’s confidence is at another level.

“Winning is what I do,” said Holloway, who noted at the final news conference he believes he’s lapped Ortega. “All these guys, they’re all great fighters, but what people don’t understand, I’m a different type of animal. They say, ‘Oh, he can do this and he can do that,’ but it is what it is, bro. I’ve heard all that. It’s the ‘Blessed Era’ and the ‘Blessed Express’ is rolling.”

Holloway is a master at keeping the fight at the distance he wants, and that will help him not only with his striking but in defending Ortega’s takedowns. Holloway hasn’t been taken down since a third-round TKO victory over Clay Collard on Aug. 23, 2014, 10 fights ago.

His takedown defense has improved dramatically since joining the UFC in 2012. In his first nine UFC bouts, when he went 7-2, Holloway was taken down 16 times. In the nine fights since, all victories, he hasn’t been taken down once. He’s been so good at remaining on his feet that his takedown percentage is 83 percent, a full 25 percent better than Ortega’s.

That’s a huge obstacle for Ortega to overcome.

Ortega may be the harder one-punch hitter, but Holloway is more pure technically and throws fast combinations in great rhythm. And for Ortega’s ground game to take full effect, he’ll have to get Holloway to the ground.

Either one of these guys is good enough to win, but I will go with Holloway via decision. He’s been in the big fights before and knows how to handle the pressure of an intense spotlight. Ortega has been vulnerable and has been hurt in other fights, but he’s never faced a finisher like Holloway.

So watch for Holloway to take a decision in a classic battle.

In the other championship fight on the card, I’m taking Valentina Shevchenko to win the vacant flyweight championship by decision over Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Shevchenko’s size, punching accuracy and submission skills will play huge roles in what should be an entertaining match.

More UFC 231 coverage from Yahoo Sports:
Holloway hints at foul play before absence
The chance encounter that launched Ortega’s MMA career
Inside life in the UFC with the Shevchenko sisters
The greatest? Jedrzejczyk in the conversation

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