UFC 231 -- Max Holloway vs. Brian Ortega: Five storylines to watch in Toronto
Holloway is set to defend his title again, but is he truly ready to return to the Octagon?
A pair of perfectly-matched title bouts sit atop the marquee on Saturday when UFC 231 invades Toronto. In the main event of the evening, featherweight king Max Holloway will defend his championship against unbeaten Brian Ortega, and in the co-main event, former 115-pound women's champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk moves up in weight to challenge Valentina Shevchenko for the vacant flyweight championship.
With a stacked night ahead of us on Saturday, let's take a closer look at the biggest storylines entering the card.
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1. Are we sure Holloway is safe to fight?: It has been one tough year for the featherweight champion, from seeing his attempt to save UFC 223 in April by moving up on late notice to challenge Khabib Nurmagomedov denied following a near-impossible weight cut to being pulled from his original date against Ortega at UFC 226 in July. The scary part for Holloway is that he still doesn't have answers medically as to what happened that week and why his speech was so slurred en route to his removal. Anyone who watched Wednesday's final press conference hoping for confirmation that all is well for Holloway couldn't have come away feeling any better. The champion, who recently admitted to suffering through a depression much of this year, routinely dodged questions about his health in favor of gratuitously reminding fans of his love for Toronto, which he repeatedly called "the 10th island." Even when Ortega expressed concern and offered his prayers, Holloway's response was far from reassuring.
2. If everything is equal, Holloway-Ortega could be an instant classic: It's hard not to get excited about a fight this good on paper between two prime, pound-for-pound level talents matching Holloway's volume striking against Ortega's sick submission skills. It's integral, of course, that we actually get to the fight on Saturday without any hiccups. Ortega has been very vocal in saying he has his doubts. As an insurance policy, UFC has enlisted Renato Moicano -- whom Ortega defeated in 2017 -- as a backup who is on weight and ready. If Holloway, owner of a 12-fight win streak, is able to go and is healthy, this one has fireworks written all over it and the toughest test to date for Ortega. Buckle up.
3. Ortega may be UFC's next star-in-waiting: For all of UFC's failed efforts in recent years to seemingly handpick and manufacture its next breakout star, the quiet and smooth Ortega just might prove to be everything it's looking for. At 27, the unbeaten Ortega has finished all seven of his UFC foes and has often done so in spectacular fashion due to his slick jiu jitsu game. But the native of Los Angeles continues to evolve as a striker just the same, and caught the attention of many in March when he viciously finished former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar in the first round. The Mexican-American Ortega also has an inspiring backstory in which he worked his way out of poverty and a dangerous upbringing. Mix all of that with his flashy wardrobe, and UFC could be looking at a new champion who appears poised to keep his title for a long time.
4. Joanna's sneaky path to women's G.O.A.T. status: To many UFC fans, no female fighter could ever top the impact and dominance once seen by former bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. To others, the winner of the Dec. 29 super fight between current 135-pound titleholder Amanda Nunes and featherweight champion Cris "Cyborg" Justino sets the winner up to call themself the greatest. However, it's Jedrzejczyk, who challenges for the vacant flyweight title against Shevchenko, that believes she can lap the field with a victory on Saturday. The former strawweight queen moves up to a new weight class looking to become the first two-division female champion in UFC history, and given the difficulty of her opponent and the five dominant title defenses she previously had at 115 pounds, it would be difficult to keep "Jonna Champion" out of the conversation.
5. Shevchenko hoping history repeats itself against Jedrzejczyk: Long before they were ever scheduled to meet for a vacant UFC title at 125 pounds, both Shevchenko and Jedrzejczyk had history together competing in muay Thai over a decade ago. The history, however, was very one-sided. Between 2006 and 2008, the Russian-born Shevchenko recorded a trio of victories over Poland's Jedrzejczyk at flyweight, with all three going the three-round distance. Shevchenko, a former UFC title challenger at 135 pounds, believes that history has allowed her space in Jedrzejczyk's head entering this fight. It's a notion that Jedrzejczyk. Although they went on to build their names in separate weight classes once they both transitioned to MMA, it will be just as interesting to see whether Shevchenko's size advantage plays as big of a role as the mental one she will hold having bested Jedrzejczyk on three previous occasions.
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