Breaking down what could be among the best title rounds in UFC history. Part 1 of 2.
Alexander Volkanovski successfully defended his belt for the second time at UFC 266, beating Brian Ortega with a wide decision. Overall, it wasn’t very close, with the featherweight champion winning majority of the exchanges and ending up with the scores of 49-46, 50-45 and 50-44.
Ortega did have his moments though, and he actually came very close to scoring an upset as he flexed his jiujitsu skills and that dynamic submission game he’s been known for. More specifically, the back-and-forth third round could’ve very well ended up as one of the best rounds ever for a UFC title bout. Both men were very close to being finished at numerous points, and it had everyone at the edge of their seats as they each attacked and kept finding ways to survive and turn the tide.
Here’s a breakdown of what ended up in a bit of a chess match between two very talented MMA fighters. We go over what they both did, what went right, and what ultimately prevented the finish:
In this stand up exchange, Volkanovski feints with a right hand, and then lands a lead leg kick that Ortega tries to catch and counter. He fails on the catch and tries to follow up with a left straight just as Volkanovski steps his leg back into southpaw stance. The champion effortlessly slips and fires a big right hand. [GIF here]
Although unsuccessful, this read and exchange would prove to be crucial in Ortega getting very close to taking the belt.
Seconds later, Volkanovski leads with the same kick. On this occasion, Ortega times it better and succeeds at the same catch kick to left straight he was looking for. He puts Volkanovski on his back, and immediately jumps on the neck for a guillotine. [GIF here]
Ortega steps over his arm and moves to mount. Had Volkanovski tried to roll and get on top, this arguably could’ve been even more dangerous for him with an arm trapped and unable to fight the grip. Even if Volkanovski manages to eventually free his arm, it’s still a brilliant move that delays his defense on the actual choke. Ortega then locks his legs and continues to squeeze tight! [GIF here]
Volkanovski’s head is starting to turn purple. He’s close to being finished and starts bucking! It looks like he wants to try to open and clear Ortega’s legs to relieve pressure.
As he’s bucking, he’s tries to fight the grip, push the legs lower, and push on Ortega’s body — any attempt just to try to get a bit of space on his arteries, and get more blood to his brain. [GIF here]
Chokes need constant pressure to be more effective. Although not applicable here, for context, a very common mistake beginners make is to squeeze hard 100%, and if they can’t get a tap, they loosen a little to adjust, then squeeze 100% again. That not only burns out your arms quicker, but every adjustment that loosens things up also gets more blood flowing back to his brain. As that keeps happening, it only lengthens the time needed to put him out and finish.
Conversely, there are ways to somewhat recreate that dilemma as well. When defending chokes that are so deep and you don’t have much options, sometimes even just finding a way to buy yourself more time can help tremendously. Volkanovski’s attempts to buck and move and explode constantly is a desperate attempt to keep creating even tiny amounts of space for a fraction of a second — not just to keep inching his defense and grips closer, but so blood can go to his brain and he can stay in the fight longer.
This choke is obviously very effective already, but one of the many alternatives to finishing from mount — if he’s confident that the choking arm is still deep enough — is a one-arm guillotine. Ortega can put the palm of his left choking arm closer to his sternum, then post that right arm on the mat, ideally while also underhooking and moving Volkanovski’s left arm upwards so he can’t use it to defend. To finish, instead of just posting upwards (which can work, like Rockhold vs Bisping 1) he can also stay low and just rotate to his left.
Staying low keeps your weight on the choking arm and doesn’t create space for the opponent to fight the grip, while rotating makes for a stronger choke. Look at the diagram below. If he rotates and lines up to where Volkanovski’s spine was originally, just imagine the awkward position his body will be left in after. The guillotine will curl his head not only towards his chest, but also to the side, putting immense pressure on both carotid arteries in the neck. It’s a particularly potent choke, which also wouldn’t have to rely on keeping a grip that a tank of an opponent has been constantly pushing on. [GIF here]
That being said, it’s hard to see if the choking arm was even deep enough for that. Ortega was also so close and would probably finish this same scenario any other day.
Anyway, back to the fight, and Volkanovski’s left arm might just be saving him as he keeps bucking, keeps inching away, trying to weaken Ortega’s grip. You can clearly see on Volkanovski’s face just how tight it still is, but if you look closely, Ortega’s hand is already by his chin instead of the other side of his neck. Seconds later, the grip eventually breaks! Was Ortega’s arms starting to burn? Either way, that was very close, and everyone watching goes crazy. [GIF here]
Ortega still has mount, and is keeping a dominant position even after losing the submission. Volkanovski turns to his side, and creates just enough space under Ortega’s right knee. He manages to turn away and get his leg out from there, before turning back in with an underhook. He not only escaped mount, he’s immediately looking to sweep from half guard! Volkanovski now wants to continue turning, get on his knees, then drive forward to get on top. [GIF here]
It was a great job to get out of a dangerous position, but Ortega has seen this defense and reaction a million times. The moment Volkanovski reaches up to underhook, Ortega grabs a neck and gets an overhook on that arm to stop him from getting back to his knees. Ortega has head and arm control again, back in a position to attack. [GIF here]
Ortega falls to his left side, note how he tries to crunch him in and put his chest on the back of the head. From here, he can either try an arm-in guillotine but risk bottom position, or start to attack an anaconda choke but still have to battle Volkanovski’s left arm. Neither seem like sure options just yet, so goes back to his knees on top half guard. [GIF here]
As Ortega resets with less control on his head, Volkanovski posts on his elbow and tries to get back to his knees. Ortega shoots his right arm in, trying to lock a darce choke! He has long arms, but there’s just too much space now to lock it in. He also wasn’t able to kill the left underhook of Volkanovski, who now has grabbed his leg and is looking to get up. [GIF here]
Ortega wants him on his side to finish the darce. Volkanovski being deep on his leg limits his choices, but one option to force a darce is for Ortega to use his left elbow/tricep to crunch in the head close enough for him to lock in a bicep grip. As Volkanovski is already looking to get up, that would likely end up as a darce from bottom, which has its risks. So Ortega picks the logically “safer” option. Instead of controlling the head, he tries to break that posting elbow down, wanting Volkanovski to fall back to his side.
Ortega pulls at it a couple of times, but it just doesn’t work and Volkanovski manages to turn and get on his knees. His same attempt from half guard to sweep or scramble up from earlier is almost complete! [GIF here]
About to lose position, Ortega sticks to the submission attempt he’s been setting up, and jumps for a darce! He was already going to lose the position and just decided to go for it anyway. He’s looking for the same grip, but trying to finish from bottom — the riskier darce we mentioned earlier. Only this time, he has even less control on the head. Things are still loose, so Volkanovski quickly gets his elbow out of there. Nice defense, and now side control for the champ! [GIF here]
The likely reason why Ortega was willing to gamble on that sub attempt is that he’s comfortable grappling from bottom and very confident in his guard retention. He immediately shows this by framing on both the neck and the hip, to effortlessly slide his knee back in. It’s a great way to get out of a bad position, but this is MMA though, and full guard doesn’t mean you’re safe. Volkanovski immediately unleashes brutal ground and pound and makes him pay for that jiujitsu approach. [GIF here]
Just how deep was the guillotine from earlier? Well in his own words, Volkanovski described it as “about-to-lose-the-belt deep.”
There’s already a lot of drama involved from these two submission attempts alone, but as those who watched UFC 266 will remember, that instant classic of a third round did not end here. There were much more that happened in that thrilling back-and-forth nail biter, including a scary triangle choke attempt from the talented grappler aptly called “T-City” for his signature triangles.
Those will all be broken down and discussed in Part 2 of this feature, which will be published in a few days.