If any one fight is emblematic of Brian Ortega's undefeated UFC run so far, it's his submission victory over Diego Brandao at UFC 195 almost two years ago.
Against Brandao, Ortega went to the final round needing to make something happen. During the first two periods, the more seasoned Brandao had landed the harder shots on the feet and scored some timely takedowns, all without slowing down as much as Ortega and his team had hoped he might.
As the third stanza began, it appeared the 30-year-old Brazilian was about to hand Ortega his first professional loss.
"You ready for a takedown or what?" cornerman Rener Gracie had asked Ortega between rounds. "You got one for me? He's up two [rounds] on the cards right now, so we have to put him down."
Months in the gym for a night in the Octagon. @BrianTCity #UFCFresno https://t.co/DTMAPeCrH42017-12-5 22:22:03
Ortega responded by pulling off what would soon become his calling card inside the Octagon—a late, come-from-behind victory.
After initiating a clinch near the fence with just over a minute gone in the final period, Ortega seized Brandao's neck with an arm-in choke attempt. As Brandao dropped to the mat to escape, Ortega transitioned to a mounted guillotine and then into a triangle choke that forced Brandao to tap out.
It was a beautiful display of jiu-jitsu—the other thing that has been Ortega's constant—and it allowed him to transform a near-certain defeat into a highlight-reel victory.
This wouldn't be the last time, either.
As he approaches Saturday's main event fight against Cub Swanson at UFC Fight Night 123, Ortega's penchant for the dramatic has already proved historic. Simply put, he's never out of a fight, and his four consecutive third-round finishes stand as the most of all time in the UFC.
Coupled with his otherworldly Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills and aggressive, evolving striking game, Ortega's walk-off wins have made him a hot prospect in the men's featherweight division. A win this weekend over Swanson—the weight class' No. 4-ranked contender—could put him just a fight or two away from challenging new champion Max Holloway for the title.
Yet, Ortega's pattern of last-minute heroics also raises questions about his long-term future as an elite 145-pounder. After all, you can't have a bunch of dramatic comeback wins if you don't consistently fall behind in your fights.
Is Ortega really as good as his sterling 12-0-1 record suggests? Or has he just gotten lucky?
Since debuting on the big stage in 2014, the flashy Gracie jiu-jitsu black belt has steadily proved he's most dangerous when things look worst for him. The only bump in the road so far has been a July 2014 win over Mike De La Torre, which was later converted to a no-contest after Ortega tested positive for a steroid.
Otherwise, his record has been flawless, though he certainly hasn't made it easy on himself.
Before Brandao, Ortega defeated Thiago Tavares via third-round TKO in a bloody, back-and-forth fight that earned both men $50,000 performance-based bonuses.
After Brandao, he stunned Clay Guida with a crushing knee to the face just 20 seconds before the final horn in a fight Guida was on the verge of winning.
In his most recent performance, Ortega conceded a rough second round to ninth-ranked Renato Moicano before roaring back to win via guillotine choke three minutes into the third.
Each time, the specter of a loss loomed until Ortega snuffed it out with a late finish. Has there been some good fortune involved in that streak? Sure.
Yet a closer look at the 26-year-old California native's recent performances reveals there's far more going on than just luck. Take a few minutes to learn about his background and it's clear to see Ortega's success is more about hard work than pure chance:
So far, Ortega has been well-conditioned and relentless in pursuit of victory. Those are pretty good qualities to have if you're planning on setting up shop in the featherweight title picture.
"I go in there to kill," Ortega said, just before the Moicano fight, via MMAjunkie's Steven Marrocco and Ken Hathaway. "That's all it means. I fight to the end."
Ortega's advanced skills are obvious. He's light on his feet and athletic with his striking, sticking mostly to tight, straight punches but unafraid to mix in some spinning kicks and elbows when he's feeling it. On the ground, he's one of the most dangerous fighters in all of MMA, possessing an active offensive guard that makes even sturdy professionals nervous to tangle with him on the mat.
On top of that, Ortega has gotten some really good coaching, especially during his fights.
Against Guida, for example, Gracie told Ortega in the corner after the first round that Guida was lowering his head during their striking exchanges. Two rounds later, Guida tried to slip a barrage of punches from Ortega when he ducked right into the knee that ended the fight.
When things started out rocky against Brandao, his corner reminded Ortega the game plan was to drag the former Ultimate Fighter into the deep water of the late rounds. That's what Ortega did, ultimately chaining together chokes until he got the finish in the third.
"Pretty much every time I train with the Gracie brothers, they're just like blankets over me so I just did the same thing," Ortega told UFC color commentator Joe Rogan in the cage after the Brandao win. "It's something we train every day at the Gracie Academy. We go from choke to choke to choke to choke. You think you're out of the fire, but you're not."
So more than sheer serendipity, you can chalk Ortega's four straight third-round finishes up to his aggressive nature, his solid cardio and his talented team of coaches.
All the same, if his habit of being a slow starter is ever going to come back to haunt him, it could well be this weekend against Swanson.
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Name a fighter more exciting than @CubSwanson. We'll wait... Swanson battles Ortega at #UFCFresno Saturday https://t.co/cRhE3SQHhC2017-12-6 03:00:05
The bottom line is nobody gets lucky against Cub Swanson. If Ortega wants to solidify himself as a legitimate title contender at 145 pounds, beating the longtime Team Jackson-Winkeljohn trained fighter will do the trick.
In recent fights, however, Swanson has proved a difficult out for up-and-coming UFC stars. His December 2016 fight against Doo Ho Choi followed much the same narrative as the Ortega matchup—seeming as though the fight company wanted to get the 26-year-old Choi a win over a recognizable Octagon veteran.
Swanson wasn't having those plans, however, and defeated Choi by unanimous decision. He followed that win up by beating Artem Lobov in April 2017, making it four straight wins for him since back-to-back losses to Frankie Edgar and Holloway in 2014 and '15.
Swanson doesn't shape up as the kind of guy Ortega can fall behind to early, though the fact their bout is a five-round main event changes the dynamic a bit.
It means both guys will have ample opportunity to show what they're made of.
For Swanson, that will require proving all over again that he's nobody's stepping stone.
For Ortega, a win here would prove he's a lot more than just lucky.