Columnists, Mixed Martial Arts, Sports

The Red Corner: UFC 266 recap

On Saturday, UFC 266 reintroduced fight fans to pay-per-views, sold-out arenas and title fights. An entertaining card from top to bottom, this card featured powerful knockouts, crafty submissions and an instant classic for a main event. Saturday’s main, in addition to being a great scrap, presents an interesting crossroads for the UFC featherweight division. 

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Featherweight battle for the belt

Of course, we have to start with Saturday’s blistering main event. Featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski (23-1) and No. 2 contender Brian Ortega (15-2, 1 NC) produced an absolute brawl for us to behold. 

Volk put his belt on the line against Ortega after defeating and subsequently defending against Max Holloway (22-6) in December 2019 and July 2020, respectively. Even if you missed the fight, you know that Volk battled his way to a unanimous decision victory, retaining his belt. What you missed in not watching this scrap is the sheer entertainment it provided.

Saturday’s main event was a war. A masterclass in striking and octagon durability over five five-minute rounds. Volk managed to more than double Ortega’s striking output, landing 229 total strikes (214 significant) to T-City’s 101 (88). Despite the disparity in striking output, both featherweights landed significantly at remarkable clips — 87% of Ortega’s strikes were significant, to match 93% of Volk’s. In fact, in rounds one, two and five, the two 145ers managed to land exclusively significant strikes.  

Ortega’s real contribution to the fight came with his five takedown attempts, two of which he landed. Ortega also latched in three submission attempts, one of which, a third-round guillotine choke, nearly tapped a mixed martial artist as grizzled as Volk. Volk admitted after the fact that Ortega’s grip was “I’m-about-to-lose-the-belt’ deep” in Saturday’s post-fight press conference.  

Ortega’s ground game presented an aspect of MMA that we had not yet seen in Volk’s recent ascension to the top. Volkanovski’s previous four fights were against Holloway (twice), Jose Aldo (30-7) and Chad Mendes (18-5). Those three fighters are some of the greatest featherweights that have ever lived. They’re also all striking machines and stand-up warriors who live to brawl. All of Volk’s fight camps since 2018 have had to accommodate for the heavy use of fisticuffs, and thus Ortega’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu represented a sudden change to what Volk has had to deal with in the cage. 

All the same, Volk stuffed three of Ortega’s takedown attempts and managed to survive a barrage of chokes. This fight, therefore, represents a solidification of “The Great’s” skills as champion. He’s not just a striker with wrestling, but someone who can roll with a black belt and keep his neck. 

What’s next

The future of the 145-pound division is a little hazy. Holloway will always be a title contender that the UFC can throw at Volk. Max is a former champ, and his claim to the title is elevated by the result of their last fight in July 2020. Back on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, Max and Volk did battle for the second time. Many felt Max handily won the rematch, yet Volkanovski was the one whose hand was raised after the judges’ scorecards were read. Even UFC President Dana White remarked on the sheer robbery after UFC 251. 

Regardless, Holloway will be fighting Yair Rodriguez (13-2) to headline a Fight Night card in November. That fight is going to be awesome, but it opens up the discussion over who the UFC should put forward to share the cage with “The Great.” 

Below Holloway and Rodriguez in the rankings, there is no real 145er who has a legitimate claim to the title. Outside of the rankings, however, there is one extremely intriguing name for the UFC to call on: Henry Cejudo (16-2) took to Twitter this past weekend to disavow Volk’s victory, while teasing his return from retirement. 

The former U.S. Olympic wrestling gold medalist and UFC flyweight and bantamweight champion teased a return multiple times, most recently last March when Cejudo made clear his intention to return to the UFC bantamweight division. All the same, I think there is at least a chance Cejudo’s claims and real intentions are aligned here. He doubled down with an Instagram post of himself with three UFC belts and his Olympic gold medal Tuesday. 

Not only is there at least a chance Cejudo returns to fight Volk, I am actively praying to the MMA gods that he does. Cejudo has one of the strongest legacies in UFC history, and a fight for the featherweight belt would put him in a position to be the first fighter to win the belt in three different weight classes. Further, Cejudo would be one of the few fighters to have an advantage in the wrestling department over Volkanovski, and thus this fight would be a must-watch. 

If Cejudo comes back for Volkanovski, I think White and the UFC brass will give him the instant title shot. Be sure to keep up with @RedCornerDFP for picks, predictions and MMA news.

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