LAS VEGAS — A thousand paths could have taken Brian Ortega away from the octagon. Gangs and drugs loomed over his adolescence in suburban Los Angeles, and a chaotic home life pushed him into the streets.
Instead, Ortega ended up in a Brazilian jiu-jitsu gym and discovered the discipline and self-worth he had lacked. He surfed at a popular spot in Redondo Beach where another fighting coach spotted him and educated him on mixed martial arts.
And while his friends struggled, Ortega surrounded himself with a surrogate family that allowed him to thrive — and to build a fighting career on the verge of a breakthrough.
“A lot of my friends, they’re out of prison (now),” the 27-year-old Ortega said. “I hang out with them, and they’re just proud of me. They’re like, ‘Man, out of all the boys, you’re the one that made it out. You’re living the dreams that all of us talked about.’ I’m doing what I said I was going to be doing when I was 16. They admire it. They respect it. They know not to get me in trouble anymore.”
Ortega (13-0, 1 no-contest) still lives dangerously, however: With barely more than three weeks’ notice, he agreed to fight former champion Frankie Edgar (21-5-1) on Saturday night. The winner is almost certain to get the next shot at featherweight champ Max Holloway, whose injury set in motion Ortega’s opportunity.
Ortega is an underdog, but he’s used to the feeling.
“I feel like I’ve been through so much that 15, 25 minutes of my life (in the cage) is not going to faze me,” Ortega said. “The way I look at it is, ‘What can you do to me that hasn’t been done to me already? What are going to do, hit me in the face for 15 minutes? I’ve been beaten up worse than that in my life.'”
Ortega and Edgar meet in the penultimate bout of UFC 222 at T-Mobile Arena. The pay-per-view card is headlined by featherweight champion Cris “Cyborg” Justino against UFC newcomer Yana Kunitskaya.
Ortega was nicknamed “T-City” as a teenager by his jiu-jitsu coach, Rener Gracie, who receives credit from Ortega for setting his life on its current path. The nickname is short for Triangle City in recognition of Ortega’s remarkable ability to lock opponents into a triangle submission hold, even back when he was the smallest kid in Gracie’s academy.
After an unbeaten amateur career and a perfect professional start, he cracked the UFC lineup in 2014 — and promptly failed a drug test after his first victory. He acknowledged his mistake and fought back with five straight wins in 2 ½ years, culminating in an impressive stoppage of veteran Cub Swanson by guillotine choke last December.
That win made him a top contender and got him a lucrative new contract with the UFC, yet he still drives his 1998 Chevy Blazer to Harbor City to train in the one-car garage of his longtime striking coach, James Luhrsen.
At home in Lomita, Ortega still sleeps on the floor, just as he did as a kid when his family home in San Pedro frequently had well over a dozen people crammed into it, leaving no bed for him.
“The people around me saved my life, not MMA,” Ortega said. “It was people who said, ‘You’re better than this,’ who told me, ‘You don’t belong in this world.’ MMA and jiu-jitsu and training gave me an escape. I would always train, but then I would go back to doing what I was doing. To have people who were constantly on me to be better, I felt like that love wasn’t really shown when I was growing up. They saw what I couldn’t see.”
Ortega’s life picked up speed after his victory over Swanson. He travels the country now in a blitz of publicity stops, personal appearances and other commitments, sometimes arriving at the Los Angeles airport unable to remember where he’s about to fly without looking at his ticket first.
If he manages to beat Edgar, his celebrity will skyrocket. But he doesn’t intend to forget the distance he has already traveled.
“I always have my group of friends at the gym,” Ortega said. “We used to go hang out somewhere before. Now we’re just hanging out at the gym. We have sparring parties where everyone beats each other up, but then we all eat my dad’s cooking, and I hire a massage therapist, so everyone is just kicking back and having a good time. I just keep the environment great.”
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