Two of the Octagon's most intriguing young contenders both proved they are ready for prime time Saturday at UFC Fight Night 123.
Brian Ortega and Marlon Moraes each brought an exciting, highlight-reel finish to an otherwise decision-filled main card at Save Mart Center in Fresno, California.
As the UFC picks up a bit of steam toward the end of its underwhelming 2017, Moraes should be closing in on a men's bantamweight title shot. Meanwhile, Ortega may have significantly cut the line at men's featherweight.
The 29-year-old Moraes needed a statement win and got one via first-round knockout of Aljamain Sterling.
As the former longtime 135-pound champion of World Series of Fighting, Moreas already enjoyed a significant amount of hype when he crossed over to the UFC at the beginning of the year. Unfortunately, much of that sizzle dissipated when he dropped his Octagon debut to Raphael Assuncao via split decision at UFC 212 in June.
Moraes bounced back to defeat perennial top contender John Dodson via split verdict on Nov. 11, and less than a month later, he knocked out the well-regarded Sterling in just one minute, seven seconds.
Just like that, Moraes recaptured much of his earlier momentum.
The future of newly crowned bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw is unknown. After kickstarting his second title reign with a victory over archrival Cody Garbrandt at UFC 217 on Nov. 4, Dillashaw may be headed for a superfight against men's flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson.
The particulars of that bout still need to be worked out, however. If it doesn't happen—or if Dillashaw emerges from a tangle with Johnson with the 135-pound title still around his waist—he might find Moraes waiting for him.
During an 11-0 run in WSOF from 2012 to 2016, Moraes notched seven stoppages and built a reputation as one of the best bantamweights in the world. In his first two Octagon appearances, however, that finishing ability was conspicuously absent, and Moraes had begun to fade into the background of the crowded UFC roster.
His performance against Sterling provided the standout moment he needed to reassert himself as a dominant force.
Moraes landed a knee flush on the jaw of the 28-year-old New York native during the early stages of their bout, dropping Sterling to the mat in an instant Knockout of the Year candidate.
Sterling remained down for several minutes and was taken out of the cage on a stretcher. In the wake of that scary scene, coach Ray Longo told MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani that Sterling was conscious and walking around backstage a few minutes later.
Longo said Sterling was taken to the hospital for precautionary reasons.
Meanwhile, Moraes had duly served notice to the rest of the 135-pound division.
"It's so unbelievable when you train so hard for a fight and when you keep repeating the same thing over 10, 20, 30 times a day and it works in the fight," Moraes said in a release. "In practice, we were always looking for the knees and the kicks."
Ortega remained undefeated, advancing his overall record to 13-0-1 with a second-round guillotine choke victory over Cub Swanson in the evening's main event.
It was Ortega's fifth straight win in the UFC, all by impressive stoppages.
The 26-year-old Gracie jiu-jitsu product has steadily built himself into a modest star since his Octagon debut in July 2014. Aside from testing positive for a steroid in the wake of his first UFC appearance—originally a submission win over Mike De La Torre—he's made all the right moves.
Saturday's victory over Swanson was the biggest piece of the puzzle to date. It is believed former lightweight champ Frankie Edgar likely still has a date with 145-pound titleholder Max Holloway locked up after Edgar pulled out of a scheduled fight at UFC 218 because of injury.
Barring any unforeseen delays or injuries, Ortega could have the next one after Edgar.
The San Pedro, California, native has been a revelation, flashing some of the best submission skills in MMA and a stand-up game that seems to improve each time out. Against Swanson, the combination was good enough for Ortega to collect two of the UFC's $50,000 performance bonuses—a fairly rare feat for a fighter in a single night.
It also netted him victory in his first UFC main event. Though Ortega came in on even standing with Swanson, according to Odds Shark, the win amounted to his highest-profile success in the Octagon.
It was a good time to make it look relatively easy.
Prior to this, Ortega had set a UFC record with four consecutive third-round finishes. Especially in his performances against Clay Guida and Diego Brandao, Ortega fell behind early before saving his undefeated record with late, comeback wins.
He didn't need such last-minute heroics against Swanson.
The veteran fighter started well, bettering Ortega's straight punches with looping power shots to the head and body. Ortega remained unfazed, however, and near the end of the first round caught Swanson in a D'Arce choke that might have finished the fight were Swanson not saved by the bell.
In the second, Ortega again ate some decent punches but forced a clinch against the fence and was able to secure a standing guillotine choke.
Swanson remained on his feet in an attempt to slip out of the submission. While hanging off the front of Swanson's body with his arms around the man's shoulders and neck, Ortega managed a beautiful adjustment to ratchet the hold tighter.
The 34-year-old finally succumbed and tapped out as the two crashed to the floor. His submission gave Ortega the victory at 3:22 of Round 2.
"He was in there trying to get in my head and he was landing some good shots," Ortega said in a release. "I knew I just had to keep my cool and [not] go all-out. I was going to put the pace on him a little more in the third, but I'm happy it didn't go that far."
Holloway has been champion since unifying the titles with a third-round TKO of Jose Aldo at UFC 212. At UFC 218, he defeated Aldo—again by an impressive third-round stoppage—in their rematch.
Aldo came into that fight as a late injury replacement for Edgar. At least before Ortega's impressive victory on Saturday, it was largely expected the champion would simply reschedule his date with Edgar some time early in 2018.
Ortega may now make that a more interesting decision for matchmakers. His undefeated record and deadly skill set give him the momentum, and after Saturday, he's nabbed the attention of the UFC's hardcore fanbase.
If not a title shot, Ortega could find himself in a No. 1 contender bout against Ricardo Lamas, provided Lamas is victorious over replacement opponent Josh Emmett at UFC on Fox 26.
Lamas was originally scheduled to take on Aldo in that bout before the Brazilian was pulled out to meet Holloway.
Regardless of what happens next for Ortega and Moraes, each man has established himself as a contender to watch in the new year.
As the UFC continues to search for new, marketable fighters to invest its significant resources in, that's a good place to be moving forward.