UFC featherweight title challenger Brian Ortega: This is the happiest I've ever been
- UFC star Brian Ortega has never been happier.
- The featherweight fighter challenges Alexander Volkanovski for the title Saturday in Las Vegas.
- He told us about life, the fight, and being in love.
The stocky Australian fighter defends his 145-pound championship Saturday in Las Vegas against Ortega - a prominent jiu jitsu star from California who has incorporated Muay Thai into his ever-evolving combat style.
Volkanovski doesn't think Ortega is as tough as he makes out. That he's no gangsta. Ortega laughs at what he says is the absurdity of the champion's claim. "It's like me saying he's not Australian," he told Insider this month.
"Where I come from, it's not something you choose," Ortega said. "It's not something you say, 'Hey, this is what I wanted.'
"This is something that unfortunately you're born into, and you're either stuck in the limbo of it, or you get out.
"I don't claim to be gangsta," he told us. "I'm claiming the opposite if anything - as I got out."
Speaking to ESPN three years ago, Ortega opened up about his origin story. It involved running from gunfire, friends who bled to death, and a lust for revenge.
Ortega told Insider he continues to fight in the UFC because he's determined to stay out of that life, and show others in his area that they too can succeed.
"People who make fun of it, I think they're stupid as fuck because they don't have to deal with those problems.
"You don't know what people's problems are like - broken families, drug addicts in the family, or parents going to jail.
"Bring him over to this neighborhood and he wouldn't last," Ortega said of Volkanovski. "You put me anywhere in Australia and I'd be fine. But he won't make it out of my block. They don't give a fuck what you are. It's just a difference of worlds."
Ortega could have ended up dead or in jail, he said
A former coach of Ortega's said the 30-year-old might have ended up dead or in jail, had he not pursued another life in sports.
Insider asked him if he agreed. "Absolutely. Dead or jail? Whichever came first. At that point in my life, I was just not doing the right things," he said.
Ortega told us many of his friends have ended up that way, serving eight to 10-year stretches in prison. Some of them remain behind bars. Others have died from overdoses.
"The drugs get them, they go to jail, or something happens to them in the neighborhood," he said.
Reflecting on a turning point in his own life, he continued: "At 23 years old, I had one big scare - how my life could have ended. I think that snapped me back. If I'm not training, something to distract my mind, I can self-destruct."
We asked him what happened at 23. He paused, looked down, and an awkward silence went by before he finally said: "I don't talk about it."
He added: "But after that, I was like, you know what, if I'm good from this one, I'm done from everything."
Ortega's old life wasn't all bad, he said. He had great nights hanging out, partying, drinking, smoking, and talking shit on each other.
"It was the norm. We were young, reckless, and not really understanding the consequences of our actions."
His former life sounds like it could have been a side-quest out of Grand Theft Auto - a T-City edition. "My game world, T-City, would be dope," he said.
"It would all be in the Harbor area, and I'd showcase the beautiful parts of the city. There'd be Tupac on the soundtrack, some Devour, and you've got to have some local artists who are trying to make it out of the area.
"I'm just trying to get people out of this area, and inspire others. Where I'm from, we've not got many people who've done anything. And we're stuck. So I'm trying to tell these youngsters to break that thought, and say fuck that."
Ortega can still be found in the same neighborhood, riding his skateboard, driving his car. "I want to be proof you can enjoy life, take care of your parents, get a good future, a good wife, and just have a nice life."
A flourishing love life means Ortega has never been happier
Ortega's evolution into T-City 2.0 - a ground game specialist who now appears as dangerous on his feet, after he outclassed, outstruck one of the division's best strikers in Korean Zombie - is a story that has been told before.
He evaluated his approach to mixed martial arts after a resounding loss to Max Holloway two years prior, so he doubled down in the gym, and spent practise after practise drilling Muay Thai moves, and becoming a well-rounded fighter.
A horrific elbow strike clattered Korean Zombie during that five-round drubbing on Fight Island last year, and Ortega knew it was a damaging, point-scoring, game-changing blow. He stuck to the gameplan, and closed the show.
But leveling up his fighting abilities wasn't the only change in his life. He also found love - 27-year-old Arizonan flyweight Tracy Cortez, who is a 9-1 fighter also competing in the UFC.
"She's played a big role, man," Ortega told us. "I went from doing my own thing, in my own way, to having a partner. It's so dope. I have a legit partner, a best friend, a homie. She's my girl, and I can't complain."
Insider spent up to an hour speaking to Ortega through two interviews this year. His eyes lit up the most whenever he talked about Cortez.
Pandemic-enforced lockdowns complicated dating life but Ortega flew to Phoenix to be with Cortez for a day at a time, and for weekends. She flew to South California, too, to help him in camp as he prepared to go to war with Volkanovski.
"She likes doing the same things as I like to do, and has as much fun as I do. The expensive dates came and it's fun for us."
How far can Cortez go in the UFC? "Bro, she's fight ready and she's tough as nails," Ortega said.
She even took him down to the ground during one practise session. "I was like, 'What the fuck?' But that's dope on all aspects - she understands the lifestyle and everything.
He continued: "She's one of the people who has my back," he said, telling us that his team text her to make sure he doesn't eat things he shouldn't so close to fight night. It's not uncommon for her to slap candy out of his hand, for example.
"This is the happiest I've ever been," he said. "I have unlimited support from my people. My sponsors HempFusion have my back. I've got security.
"When your team, family, loved ones, let you feel that - it's great. Keep climbing. So, yeah, I feel happy."
The calm before the storm
Insider spoke to Ortega at the beginning of his camp, and at the end. There was a clear difference in his persona during each interview.
He was energetic, with a sparkle in his eye in the first. He was more cerebral in the second. Almost distant - focused on the fight.
"This is it - what we consider the calm before the storm," he said. "All the hardship of training is over.
"Now we just dial everything back, tighten them up. Then we go to war. That's it. One man is training for me, and I'm training for him.
"We're both sacrificing to be the best we can be, to beat each other up. For him to remain king, and for me to de-throne him."
Should Ortega de-throne Volkanovski this weekend, in a fight that will be broadcast on ESPN+ pay-per-view, he'll only get happier.
Everything's fallen into place for him, he said. He's turned his life around twice - from that moment he can't speak about at 23, to the fighting change that followed his loss to Holloway.
He's older, more well-rounded, but above all, he's happy.
"This is a whole other world," he said. "It's turned fun now."
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