Brian Ortega was crouched on the ground, trying to immobilize his opponent. Blood was streaming from his face, the result of either a scratch or a punch. Adrenaline was coursing through his body. And this was before he became a professional mixed martial artist.
It was 2009 or so, he recalls. At the family’s home in a particularly rough precinct of the San Pedro neighborhood of Los Angeles, Ortega had been tasked with making sure his older sister didn’t leave the home to indulge her drug habit. When she tried to walk out the door, Ortega grabbed her and applied a chokehold. Another sister then joined the fray and wrapped her hand around Brian’s neck. Their mother was screaming in the other room. Says Ortega: She’s thinking, What did I ever do to deserve this?
It was a seminal moment—one of several—in Ortega’s tumultuous childhood. Just as his sister overcame her addiction, Brian funneled his anger and aggression into mixed martial arts. He had the physical skills. Then he added the discipline. Soon T-City was winning fights. He made his UFC debut in 2014 and went nearly five years without losing, beating—sometimes brutally—the likes of Clay Guida, Cub Swanson and Frankie Edgar.
In December 2018 he fought Max Holloway for the featherweight belt. In one of the more macabre fights in recent memory, Ortega got worse than he gave, losing when the doctor took a look at his face between rounds and declared a stoppage. After a long layoff, though, Ortega got back to his winning ways last fall when he decisioned Chan Sung Jung, the Korean Zombie.
On Saturday in Las Vegas, Ortega, 30, looks to continue his quest for the belt when he faces Alexander Volkanovski of Australia, the co-headliner of UFC 266. Before heading off to Vegas and what he describes as an “easy-peasy” weight cut, Ortega sat down for a rollicking session with Sports Illustrated.
This story has been edited for clarity and length.
Sports Illustrated: Apart from victory, what do you expect of yourself Saturday night?
Brian Ortega: Just expecting to go out there and get my job done, you know? Do my job, get this belt. I expect nothing but the best version of me, the most dedicated version I've had in a long time. I’ve made all the deposits, I expect myself being a good champion, being happy, and just enjoying life.
SI: How many times a year are you fighting, ideally?
BO: If my body’s up and running and I’m moving and I’m healthy, I’m just trying to bang out as many fights as I can .…So far, October was the last one, this is gonna be March, we’re gonna for sure hit three this year, maybe four.
SI: You were out almost two years [December 2018 to October 2020]…. What was that like?
BO: It was fun. The biggest break I’ve ever got in my life.
SI: How’d you spend it?
BO: Partying, and relaxing, and getting to know myself, and taking a break. When you’re constantly on, you never get to take a break, except when I have surgeries. To know that there’s no way in hell you’re gonna fight soon, it was O.K. to go and enjoy life now. So everything that I felt I’ve missed in life or I was missing out on; I went and had fun.
SI: What’s the biggest sacrifice you’ve had to make?
BO: Not seeing my family, not eating food, not seeing friends, training nonstop, saying goodbye to my social life, being on a schedule. You give up a lot, man. A lot of things that people don’t see. It’s a lot of sacrifice.
SI: You brought up the Max [ Holloway] fight? What’s that week after it like?
BO: It sucked, obviously. I don’t know, man. I take things pretty good, even the bad things. I don’t b----, I don’t complain; I just observe things. And for me it’s like alright, so, basically what this feels like: Cool. Now we know the feeling, and now I'm observing everyone around me. This is how you guys react to me losing. This is how you guys act, this is how you guys behave, this is the way you speak. I just constantly took information in, took data in.
SI: To what extent do you buy “moral victory, leaving with his head high….” Does that ring true?
BO: I would feel it was a cliche but they actually made me feel better. Because I didn’t see that perspective. I just thought about winning. So when I looked at the fight, finally, I’m just like, Dude, you got beat but you didn’t quit, you held your own, you gave it your best. So at the end of the day I know how I felt in there. I know I gave it my best, and that’s all I can do at the end of the day.
SI: You’ve watched it?
BO: You know, it’s high risk, high reward. I'm in the game of taking risks. Sometimes it pays off and sometimes you learn lessons.
SI: You got a favorite win?
BO: Not really. To me they’re all the same
BO: Job is done, you can go home. I look at things differently, man. I’m less emotionally attached to this than others. I’m not like a robot, but you see, every time they raise my hand, I don't have a smile. That’s it, man. It gets raised. I feel like the happiest times you’re just like, Oh s---, I didn’t expect that one, but f--- yeah. Like the Frankie [Edgar] one, we’re done early, let’s go party now. Alright, cool. I shocked myself, but it’s more like, Oh s---, what the f---, did that just happen? Like, I'm tripping out too. Like I know I’m gonna win. That’s how I feel. And when I lost, like, I know this feeling now. And I know how people act, and I know how to conduct myself now after a loss, and I know what to do after a loss. So I’ve gained a lot of valuable information in this sport, in my career.
SI: What’s the most Mexican thing about you?
BO: I feel like a lot of people who were born in the U.S., especially like myself, and our Mexican descent as time goes by you tend to shy away from your culture, from your roots. I feel like I know exactly where my people come from. I know exactly where they came from, what they had to do to survive. I have appreciation for it, understanding for it, and I have a sense of pride to know that that’s where my lineage comes from. I’m from that tree. I take pride in my tree.
SI: You go back much?
BO: All the time. Two-hour flight, 14-hour drive.
SI: How’s [your sister] now?
BO: My sister did a full turn-around. She’s involved with church and stuff like that. She runs a home for women who are where she used to be. She helps them, she guides them, she talks to them about God and tries to get them back on track to a normal, functional life. The other one stopped everything and she got married and has two kids and two twins right now, on the way. So she’s gonna have four kids soon.
SI: You’re a good uncle?
BO: Yeah, I’m the fun uncle. I’m just like, ‘Yo, when you grow up, I’m gonna take you to get chicks.’ They might have learned their first curse words from me.
SI: Does your mom watch you fight?
BO: No. Well, yes, her first one was the Max one, actually. And that f---ed her up. So she’s not going back to watching that thing. She was like, ‘I’m gonna go there for your title and I’m gonna show up live,’ and she shows up live and she sees her son get butchered and it’s just like, Oh, f---.
SI: What’s the physical pain of that?
BO: Honestly, man, it’s adrenaline. Adrenaline is a good f---ing feeling. You feel unstoppable and you’re in the heat of the moment so you don’t feel anything. It’s after the fight that sucks. It’s after the fight that you’re just like “Aw, f---. This hurts.”
SI: Are you just sleeping as much as you can that first week?
BO: I know people who go to the gym on Monday. I’m a guy who sleeps for two weeks and just eats. I'm like, ‘Yo, I don't want nothing to do with training for the next two weeks. Let me just get fat and heal up and invite everyone to the house. If they wanna hang out, we can party over here.’ But yeah, I'm hiding out for two weeks.
SI: What’s the biggest impulse purchase you’ve made since you’ve become a pro athlete?
BO: I bought myself a 1963 Supersport Apollo.
SI: If MMA doesn’t exist, what do you think you’re doing?
BO: That’s a good question. I would have liked to be a pilot. Travel the world, visit places, get paid for it, adventure everywhere. Go to France and just hang out there and then fly back. You name it, man. Discover the world. Look at the world for what it is, just take it all in and make money while I do it.
SI: You’d be okay with that responsibility?
SI: One authentic meal to celebrate, where do you go?
BO: Is Jack in the Box considered authentic?
SI: If that’s what you do. But Jack in the Box over In-N-Out?
BO: Yup, Jack in the Box. I get a spicy chicken sandwich, three egg rolls, seven stuffed jalapeño poppers, four tacos, Oreo cookie shake, and a chicken teriyaki bowl. And it’s like a $28 something, $28.58 is my total, and f--- it is so amazing. I eat it all. I get sweet-and-sour sauce for the egg rolls. I get ranch for the jalapeño poppers, extra ranch for the spicy chicken sandwich, and some hot sauce for the tacos. And the Oreo cookie shake is just f---ing delightful.
SI: That's what we’re looking at Sunday after the fight?
BO: That's what we’re looking at after the fight. I’m thinking, my guys in the limo, going through the Jack in the Box drive-thru.
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