All those schoolyard and street fights that proved so disruptive to Brian Ortega’s high school life finally have some redeeming value.
Ortega (13-0) emerged as the replacement fighter for injured UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway and will meet No. 2 contender Frankie Edgar (22-5-1) on March 3 in the co-main event of UFC 222 in Las Vegas.
“I’ve been in so many street fights. It doesn’t matter that I’m taking a fight on a month’s notice,” said Ortega, an L.A. native. “I’ve taken many fights on two seconds’ notice.”
Ortega recalled accepting a 2015 fight against Thiago Tavares on just two weeks’ notice, winning by third-round knockout and claiming a fight-of-the-night bonus.
“I was out of town; they asked if I want the fight and I said, ‘Yep,’” he said. “I started running right there in the parking lot. It’s not a big deal. It’s like a street fight. If someone puts ’em up, you’ve gotta put ’em up.”
Ortega, who turns 27 on Feb. 21, has said he cycled through four schools en route to his diploma because of his propensity to fight.
He knew what he wanted to be and developed by training in a garage in Harbor City.
“Do you have FaceTime?” Ortega asked a reporter this week. “I’m in the garage, working now.
“This is the fight for me. Once I took it, I took a second to appreciate the hard work. I’m here. My face is on the poster, the fight’s going down. I’ve never seen this happening like this, so considering that, I’ve already won. Now when I fight Frankie and beat him, I’ll prove everything I need to all the fight fans.”
Growing up, Ortega said he often watched Edgar fight. The 36-year-old former lightweight champion from New Jersey participated in a riveting trilogy with Gray Maynard, defeated UFC legend B.J. Penn three times and had two compelling fights each with former champions Benson Henderson and Jose Aldo.
“I’ve absolutely seen his crazy battles,” Ortega said. “When you’re a fighter, you look at the UFC to see the people who do it at the highest level and, when I was a youngster, he was one of those guys. Those big cards, fighting for the belt … I don’t want to say I idolized him, but I was a fan and now I’m getting maybe a last chance to fight him.”
When Holloway bowed out last week with a leg injury, Ortega said he was scrolling social media and saw a fan tag him and post, “Brian, jump on this opportunity!”
“I saved the posts I was tagged in, took a screen shot of it, and sent it to my manager with a question mark,” Ortega said. “My manager finds out everything for me, gives me the scoops. So within a couple hours, I get a text, ‘Call me ASAP!’ I knew. They were calling me for the fight. I said, ‘I already know. I put two and two together.’ ”
Similar logic is in play about what’s looming if Ortega defeats Edgar: a likely title shot at Holloway. And with the UFC working to explore a homecoming fight in Hawaii for Holloway, Ortega feels fate is in play. He has so many good friends in Hawaii, his cellphone has an 808 area code.
“Yeah, that would be perfect,” he said. “We’re going to surf, fight, win and surf again.”
First comes Edgar, a high-profile, pay-per-view challenge that can’t stop Ortega from remaining as grounded as he was in school.
“There’s no celebration yet. We haven’t won. The celebration is after,” he said. “Then, we’re all going to eat Jack in the Box.”