UFC 231: Max Holloway-Brian Ortega has instant classic written all over it despite medical fears
There is still plenty of concern surrounding the reigning featherweight champion
Under normal circumstances, MMA fans could be fairly confident entering Saturday's featherweight title bout between Max Holloway and unbeaten Brian Ortega that a fight-of-the-year candidate between pound-for-pound elites might be in their future.
The narrative, however, entering UFC 231 in Toronto has been anything but normal, nor has the nightmarish 2018 that Holloway (19-3) endured up to this point.
The 27-year-old Holloway,after he captured the 145-pound title and extended his win streak to 12, was twice pulled from high-profile fights this calendar year for medical reasons (including one related to a weight cut) and admitted to having battled heavy depression in the aftermath.
Asked during Wednesday's final press conference whether he was confident Holloway would make weight and be healthy to fight, Ortega appeared far from it.
"How sure are we? I can't answer that, I can't answer that," said Ortega (14-0, 1 NC), who admitted the fear of repeating what happened ahead of UFC 226 has "robbed me of joy" entering this weekend.
Unfortunately for both Ortega and critics alike, Holloway didn't do much to gain anyone's confidence in the lead-up to Friday's weigh-in. Each time he was asked about his health, Holloway instantly brushed the conversation off by mentioning how much he felt loved in Toronto and how, as an extension of his native Hawaii, it felt more like, "10th island baby!"
Everything from his body language and cadence to the manner in which Holloway would intermittently stare off into space with a blank look seemed off, especially in light of the heightened sensitivity regarding his difficult year both medically and physically. The fact that UFC also canceled the bulk of Holloway's media obligations that day without explanation didn't help.
Holloway accepted a late shot at lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov on five days' notice in April and was eventually deemed medically unfit amid the extreme weight cut. Three months later, ahead of his scheduled bout at UFC 226 against Ortega, Holloway was badly slurring his speech during media appearances and was pulled from the fight once more.
Doctors were ultimately unable to determine a cause for Holloway's bizarre and lethargic behavior after initially ruling it from "concussion-like symptoms." Five months later, doctors still don't have an answer. Holloway, meanwhile, has commissioned his own private investigation into what happened in Las Vegas but has been very cryptic about whether that means he believes he was drugged or not.
Either way, Holloway's fight-week behavior was enough to scare Ortega into questioning whether the fight would still go on as planned. He reiterated that belief following Thursday's media day by saying, "I don't know, man," and went on to reveal how he approached Holloway to make sure things were good.
"I looked at him yesterday and asked him, 'How confident are we?'" Ortega said. "I couldn't get a response so I don't know.
"When I saw that, I wasn't convinced. I don't want to go through it twice, but now I'm at the point where if I have to do it, I have to do it."
In the end, even with UFC bringing in former Ortega victim Renato Moicano as an insurance policy, Holloway quieted a large dose of those fears by making weight (and gesturing to the crowd to hush both before and afterwards) less than an hour after a somewhat cryptic tweet.
UFC has talked at length with Holloway about the possibility of moving up to lightweight sooner than later to avoid any further physical issues with cutting down. One thing that is certain is Holloway can put a difficult year and any lingering concerns that years of action fights have taken a heavy toll behind him with a strong performance and victory on Saturday.
Thanks to their style contrast with Holloway being the volume striker with great takedown defense and Ortega possessing a spectacular jiu jitsu game, the fight has all the makings to be an instant classic. But expect some lingering apprehension until the two finally touch gloves and Holloway looks to be back in his 2017 form.
Given Holloway's recent history and the fact that he's returning so soon to fight despite doctors proving unable to find a reason for his July health scare, it seems the person most concerned with his well being this whole week was the man tasked with hurting him inside the Octagon.
"At the end of the day, I really do care about your health," Ortega said to close Wednesday's press conference. "You have a son, all bullshit aside. I really do care about your health. It wouldn't be cool if you stepped in there and you weren't alright.
"I do worry about him, I pray for you."
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