TORONTO — Whatever the outcome of Saturday's UFC 231 main event between featherweight champion Max (Blessed) Holloway and challenger Brian (T-City) Ortega, UFC president Dana White says it could be Holloway's last outing at 145 pounds.
White said the weight cut is too severe for the Hawaiian fighter, who has battled a variety of health issues this year around fight time.
"I didn't want him to fight at 145 (pounds) again, I wanted him to fight at 155 (lightweight)," White said in an interview. "There's a lot of risk — to him, to us, to everybody."
But Holloway (19-3-0) wanted to face Ortega (14-0-0 with one no contest).
"I wanted him to move up to 155. I believe after this fight — win, lose or draw — he will," said White.
"And I will be pushing him hard," he added.
Holloway made weight Friday at 144.5 pounds, tweeting a photo of him on the scales with a finger to his lips as if silencing the doubters. Ortega was 144.75.
The champion had weighed 161 pounds on Monday, having no doubt already shed weight. Fighting at 155 would have been a breeze.
"You think these guys have to be tough to fight? You have to be tough to cut weight, man," said White.
The two 145-pounders were originally slated to meet at UFC 226 in July, but Holloway was forced to withdraw at the last minute due to what was thought to be "concussion-like symptoms.''
Doctors have been unable to determine what the problem was.
"I'm pretty sure he did not have a concussion," said White. "It had to be associated with weight cut."
An ankle injury had forced Holloway (19-3-0) out of a March bout against former lightweight champion Frankie (The Answer) Edgar at UFC 222. Ortega filled in for Holloway, winning by spectacular first-round TKO.
Holloway also missed out on a short-notice fight with current lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 223 in April (after Tony Ferguson withdrew with a knee injury), pulling out during his weight cut.
At 27, Holloway is already a veteran of 18 UFC fights and has won his last 12 bouts since an August 2013 loss to Conor McGregor. A slick volume striker, he has averaged landing 6.2 significant strikes per minute over his UFC career, according to FightMetric.
The champion has not been taken down since a August 2014 win over Clay Collard, who landed one of 10 takedown attempts. Since then, Holloway has repelled all 27 takedowns attempted in his last nine bouts.
That has kept the fight on the feet where Holloway is able to control distance and then overwhelm his opponents. He is coming off back-to-back wins over iconic featherweight Jose Aldo, leaving the former champion dazed, bloodied and battered.
But Ortega, the No. 1 contender, is an accomplished black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu who does not need to get his opponent on the ground (his takedown accuracy is only 14 per cent). Cub Swanson learned that the hard way last December when he allowed Ortega to grab his neck in a standing clinch.
Ortega then jumped guard, launching his feet up to attach himself to Swanson like a pretzel in a guillotine choke, before using a foot to push off the fence and tighten his vise-like grip around Swanson's neck to force the tap.
While seven of his 14 wins are by submission, Ortega is no one-trick pony.
He handed Edgar the first stoppage loss of his career with a wicked uppercut that actually lifted him off his feet.
The 27-year-old Ortega is also durable, with four third-round stoppages in the UFC.
While he was outstruck 109-65 in significant strikes by Renato Moicano in July 2017, it was the Brazilian whose face that looked like it had been put through a blender. And Moicano paid the price for a third-round takedown when Ortega, from the bottom, latched on a guillotine choke.
That durability is needed given he absorbs 5.27 significant strikes a minute, compared to 3.90 for Holloway.
But given his jiu-jitsu prowess, Ortega is able to advance on opponents at will — unconcerned about being put on his back.
He is also mentally strong.
He survived a first-round knockdown to stop Clay Guida, a veteran fighter he had long looked up to for his work ethic and never-say-die style, with a vicious knee with 20 seconds remaining at UFC 199 in June 2016.
Ortega says he had gone "through hell and back" leading up to the fight.
A friend had committed suicide the previous month. Then Ortega nearly drowned. And, trying to help an accident victim, he witnessed a motorcyclist die in front of him.
"I remember going to the back and the doctor's like 'Why are you crying? You won the fight.' I said 'Bro, you have no idea. I've been put through the ringer. And I came out on top.'"
The buildup to Saturday's fight has been without the smack that accompanies some fights. There is plenty of respect between the two rivals, who spent time together promoting the card.
These days Holloway is back to being a happy-go-lucky Hawaiian who loves Toronto — he won the interim belt here by beating former lightweight title-holder Anthony (Showtime) Pettis two years ago at UFC 206. And his first headline bout was in Saskatoon in August 2015, a TKO over Charles Oliveira.
A rabid Raptors fan, Holloway comes as a package deal with his charismatic young son dubbed Mini-Blessed — "He's six going on 23," says Dad.
Holloway is down to earth, keeping his championship belts in his closet at home.
But he acknowledges what he has gone through this year has taken a toll, referencing former Raptors' star DeMar DeRozan's discussion about depression.
But Holloway says his journey has been worth it. He learned not to take things for granted and to keep friends and family close.
"I found out who I really am. I found what I'm made of," he said. "Depression is a real thing. I kind of shut people out for a little bit."
"I found out what depression was," he added. "And I'm glad I got to get out of it ... I'm back and I'm happy."
Ortega is a laid-back Californian who survived growing up in the rough Harbor Region of Los Angeles. Martial arts helped keep him on the right path. While he quit at 13 to play baseball, he returned to the gym after getting beaten up by an older kid.
Today he runs his own foundation, which has already granted 16 kids jiu-jitsu scholarships.
"I am going to do some good," Ortega said.
"I come from a city where we really didn't have too many role models," he added. "Our role models would (leave) us either dead or in jail or on drugs. So now that I've overcome all that, I went though all the BS, now I'm in a position where I want to help my people out. And that's what I'm doing."
Away from the cage, he likes to surf and still teaches jiu-jitsu "for fun." For Ortega, jiu-jitsu is a "tree that never stops growing" because there is always more to learn.
His first words in every post-fight interview are to thank God.
Two talented fighters. Two likable men. One title.
"A hungry lion versus a hungry shark. And I'm ready to eat," said Holloway.
The UFC says the card is a sellout. The bookies essentially have the main event as a pick-em.
"Toronto has really taken to Max but they love Ortega too," said White. "I don't think you're going to hear any boos on either side on Saturday."
Joanna Jedrzejczyk (15-2-0) and Valentina (Bullet) Shevchenko (15-3-0) meet for the vacant women's flyweight title in the co-main event at Scotiabank Arena.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press