Young stars Brian Ortega, Sean O'Malley and Mackenzie Dern bring UFC much-needed depth

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

LAS VEGAS – Pay-per-view sales for UFC 222 will undoubtedly be modest, and there were plenty of empty seats in the cavernous T-Mobile Arena on Saturday.

This wasn’t, though, another lost Saturday for the UFC.

Three fighters who figure to play a major role in the company’s future — featherweight Brian Ortega, bantamweight Sean O’Malley and women’s strawweight Mackenzie Dern — delivered in a major way, highlighting the promotion’s better-than-ever depth. The UFC roster has more quality fighters than ever before, even if many of them are far from household names.

One of the old standbys, women’s featherweight champion Cris “Cyborg” Justino, delivered in her usual fashion, finishing Yana Kunitskaya with strikes just 3:25 into the first round, and looks headed for a champion-vs.-champion battle against bantamweight titleholder Amanda Nunes.

But at a point in its history when there haven’t been the massive pay-per-views given the departure of Ronda Rousey and the absences of Conor McGregor and Jon Jones, the UFC schedule suddenly looks crowded and there are young stars coming up all over the place.

UFC 226 on July 7 will be headlined by heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic against light heavyweight champ Daniel Cormier. But two of Saturday’s winners could also figure on that card. The Cyborg-Nunes fight could end up there if it doesn’t wind up headlining UFC 224 on May 12 in Rio de Janeiro.

Brian Ortega celebrates his victory over Frankie Edgar following their featherweight bout during UFC 222 at T-Mobile Arena on March 3, 2018, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ortega won by first-round TKO. (Getty Images)

And Brian Ortega, who remained undefeated and in the process became the first man to finish Frankie Edgar, could fight Max Holloway for the featherweight title at UFC 226.

Ortega is not only 14-0, but he’s Mexican-American and will appeal to the huge Hispanic audience that follows the fight game. He’s also as likable as they come and is in the process of creating a charitable foundation to help people in need.

Who does he want to help? Anyone who is struggling, as it turns out.

“The Brian Ortega Foundation will cater to all people who have all kinds of problems,” he said. “ … The money I made from my last fight, I spent making the foundation. Now, it’s kind of set in motion and it’s good to go. There’s a lot of love to be shown.”

He did not show Edgar much love, brutally finishing him in the first. The final sequence began when Ortega caught Edgar on the cheek with a standing elbow, then finished it with an uppercut he left his feet to get into.

Ortega took the match against one of the sport’s legendary fighters on short notice, and admitted that he not only envisioned himself winning, but had dreams in which he lost.

“Honestly, it’s a balanced scale,” Ortega said of his prefight thoughts on his upcoming match. “As much as I dream [about winning], that’s how much I have nightmares [about losing]. When I go in there, during fight week, I think that maybe I’m the guy on the highlight reel who gets knocked out. Maybe I could get submitted. I’m always thinking if something happens to me, how I’m going to react. Am I going to be a sore loser. I better be humble. I’m always checking myself.”

There is no checking O’Malley, who has star written all over him. He injured his right foot when he was kicked by Andre Soutkhamthath in the third round of a bout he was dominating and went down in a heap.

He was clearly in trouble, and Soutkhamthath made an error by staying on top of him instead of making O’Malley get up.

O’Malley, who was removed from the cage on a stretcher, was taken to a local hospital for X-rays, but UFC president Dana White said as he was leaving the postfight news conference that O’Malley did not break his foot.

But when O’Malley worked his way up, he couldn’t put any pressure on it at all, but didn’t bail. He hopped on one leg until Soukthamthath inexplicably took him down again.

O’Malley, though, earned the hard-to-win respect of his boss with his display of grit.

“That’s when you find out who’s real and talk about a fighter,” White said. “A lot of guys would use that as an excuse to try to get out. That kid didn’t try to stop that fight. He kept fighting right to the end.”

Dern, a highly decorated jiu-jitsu star, was making her UFC debut against Ashley Yoder. And while her striking skills need a tremendous amount of refinement, she showed tenacity and heart and the kind of desire that takes a fighter a long way.

Mackenzie Dern jogs before a women’s strawweight bout during UFC 222 at T-Mobile Arena on March 3, 2018, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Getty Images)

She’s nowhere near the elite of the division now, but there is nobody in the sport with better jiu-jitsu, so she’s going to win a lot of fights on that alone.

But their performances and the performances of many other young fighters recently show a depth the UFC has never had before. Not all of them will become stars who headline pay-per-views, but some of them will. But the ones who don’t will fill out deep cards that leave fans excited about bouts up-and-down the lineup.

And so while the web series that White has done in the last couple of years has looked more like a promotional vehicle for White himself, what it has done has been to help infuse quality young talent into the organization.

And whether it’s baseball or basketball or MMA, there is nothing like good, young talent.

“Look at what we’ve done with ‘Lookin’ for a Fight’ and now the ‘Contender’ series,” White said. “One of the things we’ve always been good at is cultivating young talent, but it’s been more so in the last couple of years than ever, probably.”

In the next few years, that’s going to pay off in a major way.