UFC 266 may be the fight where MMA pundits can look back and say, “Now that was the performance where Alexander Volkanovski proved that his championship mettle should have never been questioned.” By night’s end, the Australian showed that he is more than “championship-worthy” and is indeed The Ultimate Champion.
It’s often said that one of the main ingredients behind the making of a great champion is a worthy challenger. Brian Ortega served as such and then some, showing from the inside out that he is The Ultimate Challenger.
When you mix The Ultimate Champion with The Ultimate Challenger, there is something won on all sides of the arena, from the nosebleeds all the way down to the center of the Octagon, where only a single arm is raised.
For Brian Ortega, the label of “The Ultimate Challenger” isn’t bestowed because it’s his second time competing for the world title in three fights, nor is it because of the threat he holds to anyone holding the featherweight strap. It’s because once he steps out to the arena en route to a world title fight, he is willing to purge everything from inside of him on his crawl up the walls of greatness.
He proved as much when he never quit against Max Holloway in 2018, and he did so again at UFC 266. Being The Ultimate Challenger means more than pushing your opponent to the brink. It means challenging yourself to dig deep and tap into a place where many would submit long before reaching.
Alexander Volkanovski proved to any doubters that still exited why he is truly “The Great” of the UFC’s featherweight division. Having already done just that by knocking off the two biggest greats of the division’s history, José Aldo and Max Holloway, he was already deserving of being considered The Ultimate Champion. But to remove all doubt, the Aussie demonstrated that winning comes more naturally to him than breathing and that it’s going to take more than fully applied submissions to release his stranglehold of the division.
As Volkanovski made his way to the Octagon, there was a certain ease about him, a championship composure that carries over into his effortless fluidity inside the cage. When you have 20 consecutive wins on your name, a fighting style that blends perfectly with winning, and now a heart that’s revealed to be right on par with his elite skill set, you might just be an Ultimate Champion in the sport of MMA.
Coming into the bout, Volkanovski played down the “Brian Ortega 2.0” that was hailed for the past year after Ortega’s masterwork performance against The Korean Zombie. Volkanovski stated that Ortega would not be fighting a “Zombie” but someone who sets the pace in each of his fights with a much livelier movement. From the first round, Volkanovski put this difference on display, keeping Ortega on the backfoot and dictating the flow of the fight as he is accustomed to doing.
Ortega came back stronger in the next round, mixing in some good leg kicks and getting into a better rhythm than he was able to in the first. At one point, Ortega went high with a right head kick attempt that nearly found its target. Instead, the biggest strikes of the round went to Volkanovski, with heavy punches to complement his versatile striking repertoire showcased in these five minutes. It was a beautiful dance with both partners getting in snappy moves, but the Aussie remained the lead.
At the close of the round, the two exchanged words in a spirited encounter, almost as if they both knew they had to get a jump on generating the requisite energy for the round that was to come.
“That’s heart right there, buddy. You can’t teach that.”
Alexander Volkanovski found himself in Brian Ortega’s guillotine for approximately 18 seconds and the triangle choke for roughly 15 seconds. It’s hard to say what’s more impressive: the fact that he refused to tap out or the fact that he did not blackout. After surviving two of the most dangerous threats in the featherweight division, the Aussie turned the tables on Ortega, making T-City the center of the survival conversation by way of some hellacious ground-and-pound.
At the end of the round, Ortega lay spent on the canvas, appearing as though he already both emptied his tank and endured all that he could. But on the contrary, right after Volkanovski proved himself to be The Ultimate Champion in the third, Ortega’s status as The Ultimate Challenger would be earned in the championship rounds.
“This is called earning it.”
Brian Ortega did not do enough in rounds 4 and 5 to earn championship gold, but he won over a level of respect that will no doubt follow him from this night forward. Much lesser men would wilt to the physical and spiritual taxing that he had to endure within the previous five minutes alone. But for a challenger like Ortega, there was no turning back. Caught in the middle of a railroad track, Ortega did not lie down or surrender but was Thunderstruck with a third wind, one that carried him to a performance in a fifth round that he arguably won.
There is no escaping the fact that this was one of the best championship fights of this generation. It is rare that fans can watch a fight and instantly upon reaching its conclusion know that they learned something about both fighters that can never be questioned throughout the remainder of their careers.
As of September 25, 2021, Alexander Volkanovski proved that he is The Ultimate Champion; Ortega, The Ultimate Challenger. The natural result of being The Ultimate Champion is to challenge the Greats who came before you for top placement on the division’s GOAT list. And the course of the true Ultimate Challenger will not stop until it reaches champion status.
Where do you rank Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega on the list of featherweight title fights in UFC history?