Brian Ortega was never convinced another man had the will to make it through a slugfest with him until Saturday night.
On the brink of achieving his dream of strapping on a UFC belt, the challenger from Harbor City was badly battered over four rounds by featherweight champion Max Holloway.
A ringside physician who inspected Ortega’s badly swollen left eye and the cut under it decided that the 20 minutes of punishment was enough, stopping the onslaught and allowing Holloway (20-3) to retain his belt in the main event of UFC 231 before 19,039 at Scotiabank Arena.
“Tough opponent, tough guy,” the mostly unmarked Holloway said in the octagon afterward. “I made it look easy.”
In winning his 13th consecutive UFC fight — a streak that dates to a 2013 loss to former two-division champion Conor McGregor — Hawaii’s Holloway successfully defended his belt for the third time and answered questions that had lingered over his health.
Holloway, fighting for the first time in more than a year, couldn’t make weight for a lightweight title fight in April, then withdrew because of medical reasons while cutting weight for the originally planned bout with Ortega in July.
“Is there anyone else?” Holloway said, encouraging fans to join his bandwagon and answering Ortega’s observance that Holloway was “off” coming into this fight.
He was anything but, pelting Ortega from the start with hard right hands that slowed Ortega’s eagerness to unleash his own heavy blows. The power punches ultimately began to back up Ortega and leave him to press for takedown opportunities that weren’t there.
Ortega (14-1) worked to throw heavy blows in the third round and had some success, but Holloway’s responses discouraged and weakened the challenger.
In the fourth, Ortega started by spitting out a ball of blood and was repeatedly backed up by the Holloway blows that continued coming as Ortega’s eye swelled to a grotesque size.
Holloway closed impressively, and the doctor said enough was enough.
Although UFC President Dana White said he wants Holloway to move to lightweight, Holloway said, “Whether it’s staying down here and defending, going up to 155 … I’m here for all of it. Let’s go!”
Holloway’s impressive defense was preceded by Valentina Shevchenko winning the women’s flyweight belt.
Previously denied in her attempts to win a UFC belt, Shevchenko (16-3) found satisfaction by putting forth an aggressive, creative showing to defeat former strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk by unanimous decision.
“I’ve been ready for so long for this moment … it’s special,” Shevchenko said after all three judges scored that she won four of the five rounds and gave her a 49-46 decision.
Shevchenko, after failing to win the bantamweight belt in a narrow decision to Amanda Nunes last year, saw her planned first shot at the 125-pound belt vanish in September when champion Nicco Montano missed weight and the belt was vacated.
The wait ended as Shevchenko scored a first-round takedown. Jedrzejczyk (15-3), showing the added strength in moving up 10 pounds, was able to rise from being backed to the canvas.
But Shevchenko spun to land a kick to the chest later in the round.
In the second, Jedrzejczyk was getting the better of a stand-up fight with her striking until Shevchenko took her down for the final 90 seconds and landed a left knee to the head when Jedrzejczyk tried to rise.
Shevchenko maintained the aggressor’s role in the third, backing Jedrzejczyk with a kick to the body and grabbing her right leg on a kick try while daring a spinning reverse kick before landing more knees.
Shevchenko’s decision to pursue takedowns also was fruitful, gaining traction with the judges and burning valuable seconds.
Shevchenko knew Jedrzejczyk well after defeating her three times in Muay Thai competition between 2006 and 2008.
“I’m very happy this fight is done … she’s very special,” Shevchenko said. “It’s more valid to get the belt from this kind of fight than from any other woman.”