Brian Ortega has seen his popularity soar since March, when he underlined his rise from a turbulent upbringing — and training in his boxing coach’s garage — to become the first man to knock out former UFC champion Frankie Edgar.
Now his sights are set on becoming a champion himself.
“I feel like it’s my destiny, like everything’s coming together and I have this weird feeling there’s bigger things to do still,” Ortega said this week before departing to Toronto for Saturday’s UFC 231 main event, a featherweight-title fight against champion Max Holloway. “I can’t wait to figure it out.”
To attain his championship aspirations, Ortega, from Harbor City, will have to put aside his compassionate side. He says he genuinely likes — and has been concerned about — his opponent.
Ortega (14-0) and Holloway (19-3) were scheduled to fight in July, but Holloway withdrew the week of the fight week because of medical issues. In April, Holloway became ill while cutting weight for a lightweight title fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov.
As Friday’s weigh-in looms, Las Vegas sports books have the fight at even odds as Holloway seeks a 13th consecutive victory since a 2013 loss to Conor McGregor.
Ortega said when he and Holloway did a fight preview show in Canada recently, he heard his opponent say that he still didn’t know the cause of his medical issues. “And I’m like, ‘What the … do you mean?’” Ortega said. “There is something … but I want to fight him. He has the belt. I want to secure my name. I’ll fight who I have to fight for the belt.
“They did all the tests, evaluated him, made sure he’s healthy. The UFC, being the name it is, I don’t think they’ll let him go in there if he’s not in the right state. What seems a little off is that they still can’t figure out what’s going on, so I’m like, ‘Are you guys being professional with this, or do you just want to push this fight?’”
That’s the type of compassion Ortega, 27, brings to every day.
“My concern is for him. Even though we’re fighting, I have respect and love for the guy,” Ortega said. “He has a family, has a kid, and I don’t want to be the guy who triggers something bad that happens to him. I wouldn’t want to live with myself like that. I saw him and thought, ‘I can see me partying, hanging out with you … this guy’s dope.’ But we have nowhere to go. We fight each other.”
Any sentiment will be set aside once the bout starts.
“Every time, you get hit in the face, you have to fight,” Ortega said. “They close the cage and once you get hit — it’s on and cracking, whether you like him or don’t like him.”
Outside the octagon, Ortega has parlayed newfound fame to sign a film deal and expand his Brian Ortega Foundation to aid underprivileged and ill youths.
He said he was on social media one night when a girl reached out to him saying she was contemplating suicide.
“Let’s talk,” he responded.
“I’ve had a couple friends commit suicide,” Ortega said. “… I felt like they needed a friend, so I talked to her, ‘How was your day? Talk to me. What’s bothering you?’ We send each other photos … I can’t do it with the whole world, but we have to start somewhere.”
He said he hopes to begin a holiday tradition of bringing loaded gift bags to children’s hospitals — “iPads, all this stuff they can just scoop up and take.”
“I just want to make their day,” he said.
The generosity and focus on social issues can strip hours from a championship-level fighter’s training.
“It is a lot of work, and the time I get to rest for myself is mostly spent on ideas,” Ortega acknowledged, “but when you see all these kids and see what you’re doing, then you go, ‘Damn!’
“I’m still thinking about what route to go with it. I don’t want to be the guy saying, ‘Look at me doing all this stuff,’ but I do want to create awareness so others can do the same. I want to give these kids a fighting chance.”
His ability to share would expand with a victory Saturday, but Ortega said he would be fine either way.
“Even if we lost it all,” he said, “at least we had it for a bit.”
Main event: Max Holloway (19-3) vs. Brian Ortega (14-0), for Holloway’s featherweight belt
When: Saturday, pay-per-view broadcast begins at 7 p.m. PT, preliminaries on FS1 at 5 p.m.
Where: Scotiabank Arena, Toronto