Rumors of Max Holloway's demise were greatly exaggerated after all.
Putting aside a disastrous 2018 in which his health was called into question, the UFC's 145-pound champion outlasted a determined Brian Ortega in a UFC 231 main event that will go down as one of the best action fights of the calendar year.
Cageside doctors chose not to let Ortega come out for the fifth round with his left eye badly swollen and his nose bleeding as Holloway improved his win streak to 13 in a violent war inside Toronto's Scotiabank Arena.
Holloway (20-3) leaped the fence upon the stoppage and got in the face of the UFC's announce team to scream, "I told you," before declaring himself the best featherweight champion in company history. Considering Holloway owns two brutal stoppage wins over longtime king Jose Aldo, his claim may not be far off.
"Is there anyone else?" Holloway said. "Step forward, let's go!"
The 27-year-old Holloway was twice forced out of fights in 2018 due to medical reasons, including a scheduled bout against Ortega at UFC 226 in July when he looked lethargic and was visibly slurring his words during interviews. Despite doctors proving unable to come to terms on a diagnosis for what happened, Holloway powered through amid a vocal minority questioning whether him fighting so soon was the right move.
Holloway also became the betting underdog over the final 24 hours leading up to the fight.
"My fans got rich," he said. "You're welcome my friends."
Not only did Holloway quiet critics, including a worried Ortega, by making weight with ease on Friday, he very much looked the part of pound-for-pound elite inside the Octagon thanks to his trademark volume striking and pinpoint accuracy.
The key for Holloway proving able to keep the fight on the feet where he held an advantage in terms of striking was his repeated ability to either stuff Ortega's takedown attempts or quickly regain his feet each time his back hit the ground. Ortega (14-1, 1 NC), one of the most dangerous jiu-jitsu practitioners in the sport, was never able to threaten on the ground.
That doesn't mean Ortega wasn't effective. In fact, his ability to absorb clean, hard punches from Holloway and dangerously continue forward turned out to be the reason why the fight was such savage and fantastic theater.
"He's a tough opponent and a tough guy and we will probably see each other all the way to heavyweight because we like to eat," Holloway said. "It is what it is."
Although Holloway was able to connect on 54 percent of his significant strikes for the fight, Ortega routinely answered with sneaky counter shots. Despite having his nose bloodied as he was outstruck in Round 2, Ortega rallied back to land what appeared to be the harder punches to close the round.
Ortega then opened what turned out to be an insane Round 3 with clean right hands. Late in the round, he wobbled Holloway with a pair of rights and instantly took him down before taking his back. But before Ortega could apply a choke, Holloway slipped out of trouble and regained his feet.
With the momentum appearing as if it was aiming in Ortega's direction despite being down on the scorecards, Holloway boldly opened Round 4 by turning in the direction of UFC analyst Joe Rogan and motioning that he was about to finish the fight.
Although Holloway proved unable to do just that over the next five minutes, he battered a heroically brave Ortega with one clean combination after another. Eventually, Ortega's left eye began to swell dramatically as blood poured down his face. Despite the damage, Ortega rose from a brief knockdown and never stopped trying to win.
Both Ortega, who suffered the first defeat of his career, and his corner appeared ready to come out for Round 5 until the doctor jumped in to call a halt.
"I told you. What did I tell you in the corner?" Holloway told Rogan after the fight. "I said this is the round."
Despite UFC president Dana White talking of late that he would prefer Holloway's future to be at lightweight, the current featherweight king may not be finished just yet.
"I made the weight and I made it look easy," Holloway said. "I'll tell you what Dana White, I want to be the No. 1 pound-for-pound. If it's the No. 1 at 155 [Khabib Nurmagomedov], let's do it.
"A king has to defend his throne. If a king leaves his throne than another king can step up. Come see me."
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UFC 230 card/results
Max Holloway (c) def. Brian Ortega via fourth-round TKO (doctor's stoppage)
via unanimous decision (49-46, 49-46, 49-46)
via second-round submission (rear-naked choke)
Hakeem Dawodu def. Kyle Bochniak via split decision (30-27, 28-29, 30-27)
via second-round knockout (ref stoppage)
Nina Ansaroff def. Claudia Gadelha via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
Gilbert Burns def. Olivier Aubin-Mercier via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)
Jessica Eye def. Katlyn Chookagian via split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)
Elias Theodorou def. Eryk Anders via split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)
UFC 231 updates, highlights
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