The words that Brian Ortega dreamed but never dared to utter until Saturday night flowed easily following the convincing knockout that leaves him one win from fulfilling his remarkable ascent.
“I’m coming for the belt,” Ortega said.
After landing a sharp left elbow to the head of Frankie Edgar, Ortega leaned on every lesson he absorbed in a Harbor City garage to become a better boxer and became the first fighter to finish the former lightweight champ.
Ortega (14-0) produced a destructive combination of punches capped by a thunderous uppercut that dropped Edgar (21-6-1) to the canvas. The finish of UFC 222’s co-main event at T-Mobile Arena came with 16 seconds left in the first round.
In the main event, women’s featherweight champion Cris Cyborg defended her belt 62 days after her previous defense by stopping Yana Kunitskaya by first-round technical knockout.
Ortega’s win should advance him to face featherweight champ Max Holloway, who suffered a leg injury last month to scrap his fight with Edgar. Holloway tweeted Saturday night that he’d like to meet Ortega in July.
“I have worked really hard to get here and it’s even more surreal than I could’ve imagined,” said Ortega, 27.
After accepting Redondo Beach surfer-boxer James Luhrsen as a mentor, Ortega has remained unbeaten as both an amateur and pro mixed martial arts fighter. His size advantage over Edgar was so stark because Ortega rehydrated more than 20 pounds, and he leaned on the advantage by withstanding some punches.
“I thought he was going to shoot in on me” for a takedown, Ortega said. “It never came. I was not going to be the one to shoot. I have too much respect for his wrestling. I knew that I could stand and bang with him. I felt like I could knock him out.”
Ortega said he felt the uppercut could do damage after landing one earlier.
“I kept pursuing it until, ‘OK, you’ve got it. Let’s go finish him,’” Ortega said. “I just beat one of the best to ever do it, one of the real legends.”
The Costa Mesa-trained Cyborg (20-1) is a legend in her own right, too.
She briefly dealt with some uncomfortable moments against Kunitskaya, an 11th-hour addition to the main event, before finishing her.
Bothered by Kunitskaya’s ability to press her to the cage, Cyborg promptly hammered a knee to the challenger’s gut and planted a fist on her head to back her off, then reverted to what she does best.
With Kunitskaya (10-4) at striking distance, Cyborg unleashed a slew of punches that dropped the challenger to the mat, where Cyborg wound up and fired at least 18 unanswered punches before referee Herb Dean stopped the fight 3 minutes, 25 seconds in.
This victory came after Cyborg defended her belt Dec. 30 in the UFC 220 main event in a grueling, five-round unanimous-decision triumph over former UFC bantamweight and world boxing champion Holly Holm in the same venue.
“I train all the time so I took this fight on short notice [and] I felt very prepared,” Cyborg said.
By making clear there are few effective challengers who can deal with her punching power, Cyborg intensified her push to fight Brazilian countrywoman and bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes.
UFC President Dana White said he likes the idea of Nunes fighting Cyborg, instead of previously scheduled opponent Raquel Pennington, on May 12 in Brazil. Cyborg, however, suggested July might be better.
“I am waiting for Amanda now,” Cyborg said. “She called me out and I want to fight her. I just want to remind everyone that she called me out. And when you call out Cyborg, Cyborg will answer.”
Earlier, exciting young bantamweight Sean O’Malley flashed rapid kicking and punching power to dictate the first two rounds against Andre Soukhamthath before a bad right foot injury left O’Malley in survival mode.
The judges gave O’Malley the victory by scores of 29-27, 29-27, 29-28,.
Veteran Andrei Arlovski leaned on new takedown lessons to outwork Stefan Struve by scores of 29-28, 29-28, 30-27.