Brian Ortega Sticking to His Roots as His UFC Stardom Grows

Chad Dundas@@chaddundasMMA Lead WriterDecember 7, 2018

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 04:  Brian Ortega holds an open training session for fans and media during the UFC 226 and The Ultimate Fighter Finale Open Workouts at MGM Grand Hotel & Casino on July 4, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The Monday morning of the biggest fight week of his life, Brian Ortega is up early to do TV.

Leading up to his men's featherweight title shot against Max Holloway on Saturday at UFC 231 in Toronto, Ortega has been slammed with interview requests. At least one 24-hour sports network is planning a major feature on him prior to the bout. It seems the undefeated 27-year-old has finally reached the level where mainstream media want deep dives into his up-from-nothing life story.

So, Ortega and longtime coach James Luhrsen are in the car at 9:30 a.m. in Los Angeles, headed to a taping. In some ways, this drive to a Hollywood television studio feels worlds away from the Section 8 housing projects of San Pedro, California, where Ortega spent many of his formative years. In others, it feels like business as usual for the middle-aged boxing trainer and his young protege.

Just the two of them killing time before another fight.

"A lot of things are changing in my life," Ortega tells Bleacher Report. "It's for the better, and I'm enjoying it, but I'm always going to be the same guy."

This is the balancing act that defines Ortega's new life. His prowess in the cage has lifted him out of poverty and taken him away from the street-level violence he witnessed growing up.

Yet on the verge of stardom inside the Octagon, Ortega can't afford to drift too far from his roots. He needs to disassociate from the trouble he used to make for himself while holding onto the hard edge and mental toughness that allowed him to become one of the world's top mixed martial artists in the first place.

Some nights, you might see him hobnobbing with Odell Beckham Jr. courtside at a Lakers game. You might watch his Instagram video with Kobe Bryant. Hollywood agent Brad Slater might have a few movie roles lined up for him. But Ortega says those experiences still make him feel like Cinderella, constantly looking over his shoulder for the clock to strike midnight.

Ortega (left), with agent Brad Slater and NFL star Odell Beckham Jr. attending a Lakers game at Staples Center.
Ortega (left), with agent Brad Slater and NFL star Odell Beckham Jr. attending a Lakers game at Staples Center.Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

He still does parts of his training camp in the cramped Harbor City garage where he and Luhrsen began their journey together a decade ago. He still shops in the same stores he did as a kid, still has his fight camp meals prepared at a local bodega where his mom used to work. When he goes home at the end of the day, Ortega still sleeps on the floor.

"I like it!" he protested to ESPN's Ariel Helwani this week when asked about his unorthodox sleeping arrangements. "… [It's] straight on the floor [with] a little county jail-style mattress."

Ortega says growing up in one of the rougher neighborhoods of the South Bay section of L.A. as the light-skinned, blue-eyed son of Mexican immigrants made him an easy target for bullies. He also admits he went looking for trouble on his own. Ortega's home life was rarely stable. His dad worked all hours, and his mom had her own run-ins with the law. Ortega says he would spend weeks in the streets, crashing with friends and never going home.

He witnessed drive-by shootings. Saw friends die. Got shot at himself. He became hardened to the ways of his neighborhood while hoping one day he might find a way out.

"I've always wanted better for myself; I just didn't know what route I was going to take," Ortega says. "It was just so many things in my life telling me I was meant for something else."

Early on, he found escape in adventure sports like surfing, skateboarding and biking. He says he always had an active imagination and would use it to dream himself out of his hard-luck surroundings. He would make-believe he was a star, and eventually started to believe that one day it might be true.

"I liked to pretend a lot," Ortega says. "I thought I could be anything that I wanted. If we had a skateboard or we had a bike, we would just make something happen. I really had an amazing childhood in terms of getting out there and doing a bunch of things at 100 [percent]. Whatever it was, I would get my friends, and we would just go for it."

When he was 13, Ortega found Brazilian jiu-jitsu and quickly showed promise under the tutelage of instructor Rener Gracie at the Gracie Academy in Redondo Beach. As the scion of one of the world's most prestigious martial arts families, Gracie didn't personally identify with Ortega's struggles, but he always left the door open for him. At times, he let Ortega train for free, knowing his parents didn't have the means to pay.

Martial arts was both a refuge and a proving ground for Ortega. He tried to cleanse himself of emotional distress and guilt through hard work in the gym. He earned the nickname "T-City" due to his proficiency at the triangle choke, but his attendance was erratic at times. Gracie worried he might eventually lose Ortega to the streets.

At 15, Ortega lied about his age so he could start competing in illegal underground MMA fights in the L.A. area. He was good, and after winning his first few fights, his name began to ring out in his own neighborhood and beyond.

Luhrsen was coaching boxing and martial arts with his brothers in nearby Carson when he began to hear rumors about this teenager tearing up the local fight scene. His interest was piqued.

"He was talked about all over the South Bay—'This kid, this kid, this kid,'" Luhrsen says. "I wanted to find out who this kid was."

He eventually caught sight of Ortega at the Breakwall, a Redondo Beach surf spot where Luhrsen had been holding it down as a local for years. He recognized the skinny kid from descriptions he'd heard around town, but the rough-looking older crowd Ortega was running with gave Luhrsen pause. He decided it was time to see what the kid was made of.

To hear them both tell it, their first encounter was straight out of a martial arts movie. Luhrsen confronted Ortega on the beach and essentially asked him why he was squandering his talents running around with local troublemakers.

"I said, 'Hey, are you Brian?' and he gave me this grin that he does all the time," Luhrsen says. "He came up to me and I said, 'Are those your friends?' and he said, 'Yeah.' He was laughing like, 'What are you going to do?' I said, 'What are you doing with those guys? I've heard good things about you—and bad things.'"

Ortega says he didn't know exactly who Luhrsen was at the time but could tell from the wide berth his friends gave him that the guy was respected. When Luhrsen invited him to come work out at his boxing gym in Carson, Ortega recognized it as a unique opportunity.

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 03:   Brian Ortega poses for a portrait backstage with his team after his victory over Frankie Edgar during the UFC 222 event inside T-Mobile Arena on March 3, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via G
Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Luhrsen was skeptical Ortega was serious about wanting to learn. Street fighters routinely say they want to get to the next level, he says, but few have the discipline to actually do the work. But Ortega didn't just show up when he said he was going to; he came back day after day. Together, the two of them began supplementing his already dangerous ground game with stand-up skills to match.

In Luhrsen, Ortega found not only a coach and mentor but also someone who understood his life. Luhrsen says his childhood was much the same as Ortega's, that he too grew up in an underprivileged environment. He too made his fair share of trouble. Now, he wanted to help Ortega avoid those same pitfalls.

The two formed an intense and fruitful partnership. Luhrsen converted his small garage into a gym just for Ortega and began decorating it with memorabilia from the kid's budding fight exploits. Still, Ortega remembers feeling shocked when, at age 19, Luhrsen suggested he had the skills to turn professional.

"I didn't believe in myself, to be honest with you," Ortega says. "I thought it was too much for me to handle and I would get destroyed in there. He believed in me. He said, 'I've got your back. I'm going to train you.' Then we won the first fight, and it was like, 'Whoa. We actually won.' We just kept going and going and going, fight after fight."

From 2010-2014, Ortega won eight straight fights on the independent MMA scene and claimed featherweight titles in two different organizations. He was already a hot prospect by summer 2014, when he won his UFC debut by first-round submission over Mike De La Torre, though that fight was declared a no-contest after Ortega tested positive for the steroid drostanolone.

Ortega celebrates his KO win over Frankie Edgar at UFC 222.
Ortega celebrates his KO win over Frankie Edgar at UFC 222.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

He admitted his mistake, apologized and served a nine-month suspension with an air of contrition rare in fight circles. Since that initial gaffe, Ortega has not looked back.

He's gone 6-0-1 in the Octagon, establishing himself as the 145-pound No. 1 contender with victories over divisional stalwarts like Frankie Edgar, Cub Swanson, Renato Moicano and Clay Guida. A championship meeting with Holloway was planned earlier this year at UFC 226, but it was called off after Holloway was declared out due to "concussion-like symptoms," per MMA Junkie's Mike Bohn.

Now, the pair will finally meet at Scotiabank Arena in what is being heralded as one of the best pure matchups of fighting styles this year.

"I think this is the best fight you could make in MMA right now," says fight analyst Patrick Wyman. "I think it's going to be bloody. Bloody and fun."

Along the way, Ortega has made a name for himself not only as one of the UFC's most interesting technicians, but one of its most likable figures as well.

He has already started a charitable foundation that awards scholarships to low-income kids from his old neighborhood. Ortega's hope is to lift the burden from parents who might not otherwise be able to afford to get their children involved in athletics or other extracurricular activities.

"He has the total package, man," Luhrsen says. "We just sharpen the blade. We keep him grounded. We keep him a humble person. He cares for people. He does a lot of stuff a normal person wouldn't do. He goes out of his way to help people. That's what we are as a team."

While advancing undefeated through the UFC ranks, Ortega also earned a reputation for dramatics. In 2016 and 2017, he crafted three consecutive stoppage victories in the last round of his fights, including knocking out Guida with a knee just 20 seconds before the final bell.

Fight analysts say this penchant for late finishes isn't a fluke and that Ortega isn't just getting lucky.

Ortega faces off with champion Max Holloway prior to UFC 231.
Ortega faces off with champion Max Holloway prior to UFC 231.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

"This is an opportunist," says Fox Sports UFC analyst and former lightweight Kenny Florian. "This is a guy who stays calm and finds a way to win time and time again. I think a lot of guys fold with pressure or when they start to lose rounds. Brian Ortega has proven that he responds very well to adversity. You need that if you want to be a champion in this sport."

He's going off as a slight underdog to Holloway in Saturday's main event, according to OddsShark. Still, most close observers note that Holloway's high-volume style, coupled with Ortega's knockout power and home run submission game, make this fight a toss-up.

"[Ortega] is super process-driven, but not in the way we usually see it in MMA," says Wyman. "In MMA, when we talk about guys having a good process, we talk about them winning rounds. They're doing whatever it takes to get themselves a 10-9 on the scorecards for every round. Ortega is process-driven, but not in the sense that he's looking to win rounds. He's process-driven in the sense that he's constantly advancing himself toward a finish."

For now, Ortega's focus is keeping his feet squarely on the ground, even as his reputation has grown from tough South Bay kid to potential world champion. Still, even he has to admit there are moments when he looks around and wonders how he got this far.

"It feels surreal when you think about what's going to happen, what's at stake and how many people around the world are going to be watching," he says of his spot on UFC 231. "It doesn't feel real. But—just like when I turned pro—I just gotta go for it. That's my whole thing. I just gotta go for it."

And if he wins?

"Somebody's going to have to carry me out of that cage," Luhrsen says. "What we went through, man? When he beat Frankie Edgar, I fell off the cage. Who knows what's going to happen at this one?"

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