Brian Ortega’s upbringing prepared him for biggest fight yet at UFC 231

Brian Ortega, right, celebrates after winning a fight. (John Locher/AP)

TORONTO — Saturday, Brian Ortega will make the most important walk of his career. He’ll enter the octagon at Scotiabank Arena to challenge Max Holloway for the UFC featherweight championship. Hundreds of thousands will be watching. His undefeated record will be on the line. The fame, prestige and, most importantly, earning potential that comes with the life of a champion will be, too.

But Ortega probably won’t be as tense during his walk Saturday as he is when he’s walking around the southern Los Angeles neighbourhoods where he grew up — where he still lives today. When he’s on a sidewalk in Harbor City or San Pedro or Wilmington. When he’s surrounded by the underprivileged environment he emerged from.

Earlier this week, Ortega sat down for a pre-fight media availability at an upscale restaurant in Beverly Hills, on one of those lavish streets that couldn’t be any more different than the disadvantaged ones he grew up on 30 minutes south. Someone asked him if he feels like a target when he’s home. Ortega chuckled and looked down at the wood table before him.

"That’s a fear. That’s a fear that I have," he said. "What’s that song? It says, ‘everything that you do will come back to you in your sweet time?’ That’s why I still don’t relax. Even my coach gets mad at me sometimes. He’s like, ‘Come on, man — relax.’ I go, ‘nah.’ I’m always good. But I just never know if someone one day or whatever — you never know, man. It’s something that you don’t know. So, we always stay alert. And we’re ready. All the time."

Ortega calls it his PTSD. A lingering neurosis from an upbringing that he says was stained by gang violence, bloodshed and death. The feeling that something extremely vicious and harmful could happen to him at any moment.

His childhood certainly wasn’t a charmed one. Ortega’s parents emigrated from Mexico in the 1980s, settling in San Pedro, where a son, Brian, was born in 1991. Ortega says he grew up sleeping on the floor in a small, Section 8 housing project apartment that would often have upwards of a dozen people living in it. He recalls times his parents, both working multiple jobs, struggled to pay bills, resulting in the home’s electricity and heat being shut off.

The picture Ortega paints of life in the neighbourhood is one of turmoil, gangs and violence. Fights in his front yard, drive-by shootings on his street, frequent confrontations with law enforcement. He learned to fight out of necessity, not amusement. The martial arts he honed in his teens were for his own survival, not a potential career.

On an episode of the Big Brown Breakdown podcast in early 2017, Ortega detailed how he was kicked out of every high school in Los Angeles’s greater Harbor Region, often for fighting. He told a story about putting hands on a teacher in the 11th grade, which resulted in Ortega leaving the class in handcuffs. He says he figures many of his acquaintances from that time are now either dead or in jail.

The only reason Ortega hasn’t joined them may be jiu-jitsu. As the story goes, when Ortega was 13, he fought an older boy in front of his home. Ortega held his own on the feet, but when the kid got him in a choke hold the fight came to an abrupt end. Not long after, Ortega attended UFC 60 at nearby Staples Center to watch jiu-jitsu legend Royce Gracie in one of his final fights. It was there that Ortega decided he wanted to learn how to sink devastating chokes like Gracie did — like the one that laid him out in his own front yard.

That led Ortega to the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy in nearby Torrance where he began working with Royce’s nephew, Rener Gracie. Ortega trained for a year at the academy and had three stripes on his white belt when his father said he’d have to stop because the family could no longer afford the classes. But Ortega was uncommonly talented and only beginning to scratch the surface of his potential. So, Gracie cut Ortega a deal: if he did odd jobs around the academy — cleaning mats, folding gi’s, helping instruct children’s classes — he could continue his training for free.

Jiu-jitsu provided an escape from Ortega’s turbulent life in San Pedro. Frequently in and out of the school system, and often his family’s home, he’d spend entire days at the academy, sometimes sleeping there when he had nowhere else to go.

Still, Gracie often recalls the occasions when Ortega wouldn’t turn up for weeks or months at a time, returning with a story of how one of his friends was shot and killed. Ortega’s detailed the commotion of his upbringing in many interviews, always stopping short of saying exactly what he did or was involved in.

"For me, it was always survival. Learn where not to be at so you don’t get shot. Learn where not to walk at so you don’t get jumped. Learn who to stand up to, who not to stand up to," Ortega said during a media availability this June. "And then, when I got old enough to get a chip on my shoulder, I wanted to be the dog. I wanted to be the alpha. I wanted to put my work in. And that put me in trouble. … I don’t know what else to say without really incriminating myself."

In his late teens, Ortega met boxing coach James Luhrsen, who agreed to help him develop his striking if he left gangland life behind once and for all. Luhrsen trained his new pupil in his Harbor City garage-turned-gym (they call it "the dungeon") as Ortega transitioned from the unsanctioned, underground fights he’d been participating in to legitimate competitions. He won his first eight sanctioned fights on California regional circuits, before signing with UFC in 2014.

And in his seven UFC fights since, Ortega’s yet to suffer a defeat — yet to even see a decision. He’s submitted opponents with rear-naked chokes, triangles, guillotines. He’s knocked them out with punches and knees. His finest performances are his most recent, when he took out a pair of UFC featherweight mainstays — Cub Swanson and Frankie Edgar — in devastating fashion.

Against Swanson, an unorthodox striker whose constant feints and creativity make him a challenging read, Ortega essentially won twice. He sank a deep choke in the final 30 seconds of the first round, which Swanson was bailed out of by the buzzer. Undeterred, Ortega stalked his opponent for the first three minutes of the second before finding a standing guillotine that quickly produced a panicked tap from Swanson. (Asked to describe the choke post-fight, Swanson said, "I felt like I was going to die.")

Only three months later, Ortega stepped in on short notice to fight Frankie Edgar, a former lightweight champion who had never been finished in his 28-fight career. Edgar was meant to fight Holloway for the featherweight title, but the champion was forced to pull out due to a leg injury. That gave Ortega an opportunity to challenge Edgar for the title shot after an abbreviated camp.

The gap in experience and preparation was considerable. Edgar had eight UFC title fights on his resume; Ortega, none. Edgar had been training for months to fight Holloway in a five-round fight; Ortega got ready in three weeks. But after a poised, patient four minutes and 30 seconds, Ortega landed a clinical left elbow, calmly walked his opponent down, and literally lifted Edgar off his feet with a devastating uppercut.

It’s all happened very quickly, as things often do in MMA. But Ortega’s ascension is even more extraordinary considering what he was up to in San Pedro less than a decade ago. Ortega says the victory over Edgar was particularly meaningful to him, not only because it was his most impressive yet, and not only because it led to him getting a title shot, but because it proved the jiu-jitsu specialist has hands, too. He’s not all triangles and chokes. He’s liable to drop you if presented with the opportunity.

Of course, any pathway that leads him to the belt will be acceptable for Ortega on Saturday night. In Holloway, he’s fighting a lightning quick, fluid athlete with a seemingly endless gas tank. One that pours volume into his opponents while darting in and out of range. It will be Ortega’s toughest octagon test yet. The most important walk of his career. A night of tension and anxiety. Just not the kind he’s used to.

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