Brian Ortega's a New Man, and He's Ready for Another Title Shot

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterOctober 18, 2020

Brian Ortega
Brian OrtegaJeff Chiu/Associated Press

When a fighter’s performance is marked by precision and technical mastery of the opponent, it’s sometimes described as “surgical.” If that’s the best term for it, then Brian Ortega was Dexter on Saturday night at UFC 180. Ortega took his scalpel and bled the fight out of Chan Sung Jung (aka The Korean Zombie) seemingly before anyone even recognized the danger. 

It was an electric performance in all phases, and it was more than enough to earn Ortega a shot at UFC featherweight champion Alex Volkanovski—a fight UFC brass confirmed on-air shortly after the win. 

“For all those who counted me out: learn to count, mother-----s,” Ortega told broadcaster Daniel Cormier in the cage after the fight. “We took some time off, I had surgeries and everything, and I got right back to work. I said ‘I need everything new. I need to become a new guy and get better at MMA,’ so today I tried to do the best I could, and to mix it all up and let everyone know that I’m back.”

Mission accomplished. Ortega not only controlled but visibly bewildered a fantastic fighter in Zombie to win going away. It was the best win in a career that has already led him to one title shot. On Saturday, Ortega showed all the skill and swagger in winning that then-champ Max Holloway showed in that humbling doctor-stoppage TKO of Ortega back in 2018.

The fight’s most consequential moment came in the final minute of the second round. After a relatively quiet first round, Zombie was slowly but surely inching forward and winging heavy punch combinations in typical Zombie fashion. But as he waded in, Ortega launched a picture-perfect spinning back elbow that caught Zombie right across the face and put him on the ground. The South Korean never got that close again. 

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From then on, it was a pure MMA master class. Ortega had a well-publicized layoff related to a knee injury following that loss to Holloway, which exposed Ortega to the point of embarrassment. (At one point, Holloway paused his boxing attack to adjust Ortega’s hand positioning. Ouch.) But now Ortega was the one dishing it out. He didn’t style on the Zombie, per se, but it was clear he had his opponent's number.

For example, while Ortega normally switches stances or fights orthodox, on Saturday he fought almost exclusively from the left side. That gave Zombie fits, including in the first round when Ortega caught a kick and dropped him with a big left hook. His jab and body kicks were on point. Zombie’s rock-solid takedown defense held up early but not often under Ortega’s pressure. That got in Zombie’s head, and Ortega used that to his advantage as the bout wore on, with Ortega feinting the takedown by slapping or even grabbing at Zombie’s lead leg. By the time the fight hit the late rounds, it was largely academic, though that didn't make it any less exciting. Ortega was absolutely flowing, to the point any fight fan worth his or her salt was glued to the pure seamlessness. 

Ortega’s true calling card is jiu-jitsu; he didn’t need it Saturday. According to official UFC stats, Ortega doubled Zombie up on significant strikes, with 127 of 212 landed compared with 62 of 163 landed for Jung.

To add insult to injury, or maybe that’s the other way around, I don’t know, an accidental headbutt opened a cut at the corner of Zombie’s eye, which caused the referee to step in, which seemed to further add to Zombie’s mounting frustration.

Ortega knows something about frustration. After that loss to Holloway—his first defeat as a pro—Ortega was set to face Zombie last winter. But then a knee injury put him on the shelf. And then came that whole pandemic thing. But Ortega used the time to his benefit—something that’s far easier said than done—recognizing a need not just to heal his body but to heal his mind and his game. From his own description, it seems he was burning the candle at both ends. 

“I feel at peace now, so [the layoff] definitely helped,” Ortega told MMA Fighting before the bout. “All this has definitely helped. Before I felt like I was living life in the fast lane. … But when it all stops and you have that heartbreak and then you finally see how great it is also on the other side and life is a bit slower, you learn—at least I learned—to appreciate things more.”

Fight fans can certainly appreciate what the 29-year-old did—wait, he’s only 29?— against a game and respected fighter in Jung. Next up, assuming the UFC keeps its promise, is Volkanovski (22-1), himself a brilliant and quietly charismatic fighter who just doled out back-to-back losses to Ortega’s old nemesis Holloway.

“We’ll see if I’m ready,” Ortega said of the challenge. “In this game, you take chances. You don’t grow in the comfort zone. Alexander Volkanovski, you’re the champ, and the thought of fighting you is an excitement, and we’re ready.” 

After Saturday, those don’t feel like empty words. Sometimes that’s half the battle. Whenever Ortega gets his scalpel out again, you can bet I’ll be getting out my popcorn.