Never count Brian Ortega out of a fight. Final-round victories have marked him as one of the most exciting and dangerous featherweights in the world. He reveals to Fighters Only the driving force behind his extraordinary triumphs is his hero – his dad.
The final five minutes of UFC 199’s preliminary-card main event is underway and Brian Ortega is turning it on. That’s nothing unusual – as he’s now saved his best until the last round in his last three fights – but this time it’s different. He really needs to finish Clay Guida to guarantee his hand gets raised. His corner urges him: “Go to war!”
His UFC veteran opponent has put on one of his best performances of recent years and prevented the rising Mexican-American star from finding his rhythm. But now he’s getting into his groove. Ortega starts to find success with his striking and then, with just 20 seconds left, a perfect knee lands on ‘The Carpenter’s chin, and that’s a wrap.
But despite the last-gasp nature of this win – as well as his final-frame finishes of Diego Brandao and Thiago Tavares – ‘T-City’ has never panicked about the possibility of defeat. It’s the way he was raised as a mixed martial artist.
“My backgrounds are Gracie jiu-jitsu and boxing,” he explains. “In Gracie jiu-jitsu we let the opponent defeat themselves. In boxing, when you first start, you figure each other out and pick up the pace as he goes. Everything we’ve done has been strategic. We’ve always talked about it.”
Well, maybe not quite everything.
“The last 20 seconds (against Guida) – that was not strategic at all. That was just a knee I saw coming to finish the fight. But we train for these kinds of situations. These guys are looking the best they ever have and we always look for the finish.”
And finishes come naturally for the 25-year-old. That ability of his to end a fight with strikes has been added to his exemplary ground game, with which he is able to transition seamlessly for submissions from almost any position. The combination of skills fits his fighting philosophy perfectly – even against tougher opponents as he climbs the UFC rankings.
“I’ve always said, ‘Let them choose how they lose.’ It came to the point where my stand-up is now coming along – it’s really good. I feel confident wherever it goes. If you want to go on the feet, we’ll go on the feet. If you want to go on the ground, we’ll go on the ground. But I always say I let them pick their poison.
“It’s not that you’re always going to be able to find the opportunity because there’s going to be times when maybe you might not be able to finish the fight. I do see a lot of holes in these guys’ games and I do take advantage of their mistakes.”
Ortega’s patient approach is the perfect compliment to his demeanour. He’s everything you’d expect from a Southern Californian who loves to surf – calm, composed and chilled. It explains why he’s become so popular and the UFC has been so keen to promote him as one of its biggest prospects and inundate him with media obligations.
But perhaps that laid-back attitude is what prompts his confidants, and even the Octagon’s top brass, to try and light a fire under his backside – for the sake of their own mental health.
“I talk to my coaches, I talk to my guys, I talk to Lorenzo Fertitta and they’re like, ‘Okay, kid, stop scaring us with these three-round finishes. Let’s get it done in the first round,’” Ortega says.
But that drama has the earned the LA native a place in the spotlight, a fanatical following and a spot in the 145lb top ten. He’s achieved everything thanks to incredible talent and support from coaches – including long-time mentors Rener and Ryron Gracie – as well as an inner strength he inherited from his Mexican mother and father.
They came to the US in the eighties with nothing, but worked tirelessly to build a life for Brian and his two sisters. It’s that spirit that inspires their son to dig deep and push for the finish in the cage.
“I think about it every fight,” he says. “To come from the background my family came from in Mexico – the poverty – to pretty much living my dream… my dad dreamed of being a fighter himself, so he gets to live his life through me. It’s a pretty cool feeling. He was dreaming about being a boxer, but he was one of the baddest street fighters you’ll ever meet.
“He was my icon. I go to Mexico all the time and they tell me, ‘Man, do you know who your dad was?’ Him watching boxing fights all the time, growing up, seeing how excited he used to get – that’s when it clicked for me: ‘I want to be a fighter.’”
Ortega, 11-0 (1 NC), realised that ambition, then helped his father realise a dream. Last year, he emulated his old man’s boxing idols when he entered the cage in the fight capital of the world.
“My dad always wanted to go to Vegas to watch a fight. He always wanted to go and watch a boxing fight, but he never got the chance because he was always working. The first fight he got to see in Vegas at the MGM Grand was my fight against Diego Brandao. That was cool.”
And if he continues his progress up the ranks, he might see his kid wear a world title one day, too.
*** This feature first appeared in the November 2016 issue of Fighters Only ***