Following his dominant win over Jose Aldo this past weekend, speculation immediately began as to who will be next to take on Featherweight Champion Max “Blessed” Holloway. The consensus opinion is that Frankie “The Answer” Edgar should be next to challenge for the belt; however, an extremely important bout will take place this Saturday, and could launch a new contender into the discussion.
The Main-Eventers for UFC Fight Night: Fresno are undoubtedly among the best in the world at 145lbs. Following his Fight Of The Year calibre performance against Doo Ho Choi, #4 ranked Cub Swanson gained instant notoriety among the hardcore fan base, and for good reason. Although all 4 of his last wins have been via unanimous decision Swanson is known as a chaotic and all-out competitor who attempts to achieve “beautiful destruction” every time he steps into the cage. This commitment to savagery combined with his current win-streak made him a front-runner to replace the injured Edgar this past Saturday.
While the Californian ultimately did not get another crack at Holloway (who he was submitted by in April of 2015) that chance remains a viable possibility. Swanson is among the short list of contenders at featherweight and although he is more than likely one step behind Edgar, a big win on Saturday night could leapfrog him over the former Lightweight Champion
Although the Jackson-Wink product will be facing a talented up-and-comer, he will certainly not be up against his toughest foe. Swanson has faced some of the toughest featherweights in the history of the sport with his only losses coming from: Holloway, Aldo, Lamas, Edgar, and Mendes (all of whom are truly elite). While he has several notable wins on his record (Poirier, Stephens, Dias, and Oliveira) Swanson seems to suffer from “Cerrone Syndrome”.
The New Mexico resident is able to put together impressive win-streaks of 11, 6, and now 4, only to lose against a truly elite opponent (usually a current or former champion). At 34 years of age, Swanson is entering into the tail end of his career; and while he is still in his prime, this is likely his last big push for a title opportunity. Whatever you think his chances are against Holloway (and I would argue they are very slim) the fact is, he must first get through an incredibly talented and undefeated Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt.
There are only a handful of fighters in the UFC who have adapted high-level Gi and No-Gi Jiu-Jitsu into the world of MMA. At the heavier weights there is Antonio Carlos Junior, Fabricio Werdum, and Demian Maia but in the lighter divisions there is perhaps no one as talented as Brian Ortega.
Although “T-City” has increasingly showed off his striking and by default moved away from his grappling, there is no doubting where he is the most dangerous. With a 50% submission rate, it is no wonder that his past opponents have tried to play a stand-up game with him. For his part, the Torrance, California native is happy to oblige, though going with his B-game so often has landed him in hot water.
Ortega has gained a reputation for putting himself in unnecessary trouble and then pulling off late/come from behind wins. In his past two fights against Guida and Carneiro, Ortega found himself battered, out-pointed, and generally dominated for the better part of 3 rounds. In both fights however, he was able to launch hail mary attacks that resulted in victories that have led to this Main Event showcase. There is something to be said for a fighter moving away from their A-game in order to round out their overall abilities and while this has succeeded for him so far (though barely) one has to question the effectiveness of such a strategy against Swanson.
Ortega has world class MMA Jiu-Jitsu. So why not use it all the time? Is Cub Swanson, a man who professes his goal in every fight is to create “beautiful destruction”, really the kind of man you want to work on your striking with? 5 of Swanson’s 7 losses have been via submission, so why not take the path of least resistance?
At just 26 years of age the undefeated featherweight still has time to figure things out. If he goes out on Saturday night and loses because he attempts to strike with Swanson, it won’t be the end of his athletic career. But for the Jackson-Wink staple the stakes are much higher.
I alluded to Swanson’s “Cerrone Syndrome” earlier on and this bout is reminiscent of Cowboy’s last fight against Darren Till. Both Cowboy and Swanson have always failed when the really big fights came around, and both were always able to beat good-but-not-truly-elite talent. When Cerrone lost to Till (another highly-touted prospect) it signaled that not only was the Coloradan unable to beat the best but he might be altogether finished with beating those names who in the past contributed to his impressive win streaks.
Cub Swanson is in very much that same position. Even if he beats Ortega on Saturday night we still have no idea if he can break through when it really counts. However if he has his own Cerrone/Till moment we will probably see the last of him as a title-contender. Whether or not Swanson has the chance to prove his doubters wrong depends on his performance on Saturday in Fresno, California. We could see Ortega pass from prospect to contender or fall back to the drawing board. We could see Swanson succumb to a Hail Mary or create another instance of “beautiful destruction”. Most importantly though Saturday night will be the demarcation for the careers of two of Featherweight’s best.