Brian Ortega’s performance against the Korean Zombie at UFC Fight Island 6 wasn’t just an announcement to the featherweight world that he had evolved. It was also a way of announcing the division’s evolution. Ortega was the big winner this weekend. But the man who stands to gain the most is the current champ, Alexander Volkanovski.
UFC 251 was a mixed bag for the mixed martial artist from New South Wales. We’ll table the discussion about who really won for another time. I personally thought Max Holloway took a narrow decision. But whatever you think of the decision, and whoever you had winning that fight, I think it’s clear who won the war. Volkanovski has been the better fighter for over 10 rounds of combat. That’s enough to step away from any future rematches with Holloway. But is it enough to step out of Holloway’s shadow?
Holloway has been in the UFC for eight years. From 2014 to 2016, he was an elite contender. From 2016 to 2019, he was its dominant featherweight champ, even going so far as to challenge himself by trying to grab another belt at UFC 236.
With Ortega putting a stamp on the division with his win over KZ, Volkanovski has his work cut out for him. A potential matchup with Ortega is one of the most fascinating matchups in MMA, period. Not only are we likely to see a unique clash of counter pressure, but Ortega showed that he hasn’t forgotten his grappling roots. While grappling itself didn’t factor into much of his offense, the UFC commentary stereotyping both men’s games did a disservice to them. Jung’s grappling is borderline elite (if not downright elite; you don’t submit Dustin Poirier by accident), and Ortega managed to get him off his feet in a way not that dissimilar from how Chad Mendes put Volkanovski on his back. If Mendes could take his back, what might Ortega do?
Of course, there are plenty of other great matchups. Although a fringe contender, Yair Rodriguez can finally put Jeremy Stephens in his rear view mirror. He was already set to face another top 5 contender before injuring his ankle: Zabit Magomedsharipov. The raw physics of that matchup alone would give us the closest thing to Lee vs. Karim we’ll have ever have at FW. Chan Sung Jung and Calvin Kattar are hardly afterthoughts either. Rounds two and five proved that Jung is still a threat even when nothing seems to be going his way, and Kattar looks like a man finally finding his groove.
There’s also Holloway himself. I don’t think anyone’s clamoring for a rubber match to decide the 3-0, but two things are worth noting. One: the UFC didn’t mind doing exactly that with Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock. Yes, the circumstances were very different, as their initial fight more or less created the UFC as we now know it. But the fact remains; not only did they grant Shamrock a third shot despite losing the first two, but they did so despite those first two matchups being horrifically lopsided. Two: you can always revise their history as a 1-0-1 series. Dana White agreed with most media outlets at the time, calling out ‘bad judging.’ And he later admitted he’d be cool with a third fight. I don’t think anybody wants the fight, but it’d be hard to say no if Holloway put in the work and left no contender stone unturned.
On the surface, I’m skeptical about Volkanovski’s potential reign. Featherweight is producing a real rogue’s gallery of contenders. On the surface, these challengers have advantages over Alexander. Whether it’s Zabit’s length, Ortega’s grappling, or Holloway’s experience; I struggle to envision a universe where Volkanovski steps out of Holloway’s shadow and becomes the next great featherweight. But then again, fighting isn’t about what’s on the surface. It’s about the will to power. So far, Volkanovski has that covered.
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