Brian Ortega will finally get his shot at the UFC featherweight belt Saturday when he challenges Max Holloway. Ortega has been waiting since UFC 226 in July when Holloway withdrew due to health issues on fight week. In Toronto, Ortega will attempt to secure gold.
Win or lose, though, Rener Gracie told Luke Thomas on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour that the result almost doesn’t matter this coming weekend. Obviously, Ortega’s longtime coach wants his star pupil to become a UFC champion. In his mind, however, the hard part might already be over — Ortega has pulled himself out of his upbringing in the projects of a rough area of Los Angeles.
“Anyone who knows Brian from that era knows that Brian already won the title,” Gracie said. “To have made it out of the challenges he faced and the difficult circumstances for him and his family that he faced early on and really the life that he lived, which was not by any means a positive one by conventional standards. For Brian to have made it out of what he was involved with and to now be competing as a professional athlete on the level that he’s competing at, he already won. So for me, I look at this and I’m like, this is all extra.”
Ortega came to train Brazilian jiu-jitsu with Gracie and his brother Ryron when he was 13 years old. It wasn’t always easy back then, Gracie said.
“There were many, many times during his early years where we didn’t know if Brian was gonna make it out,” he said. “There were times where I didn’t see him for three months at a time, because of the challenges. Not drugs, but gangs and other things that he was involved with — no drugs, to be clear — back then. It was such a negative lifestyle that I wouldn’t hear about him for three months and he would show up and say, ‘Man, I lost one of my best friends, who just got shot.’ All I can think of is, man it’s your best friend now, next time it could be you.”
Ortega, 27, is a real mixed martial arts success story. He turned Brazilian jiu-jitsu into his way out of San Pedro public housing. “T-City” is undefeated with six straight wins in the UFC, including a first-round knockout of former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar at UFC 222 in March. All of those victories have been finishes.
Ortega (14-0, 1 NC) says he agrees with Gracie’s assessment that he has already won.
“I feel the same way,” he said at a media lunch Monday in Los Angeles. “I feel like we’re not struggling as much as we were before. You start to think and you feel like you have problems and you go, wait a minute. Shut up. You’re all right now, dude. Relax.”
He said he has not completely separated himself from his neighborhood or the people he grew up with, though. Ortega said he never really wants to leave the Harbor Area of Los Angeles’ South Bay. There are just caveats to what he does now with his old friends.
“I would never turn my back on anyone or think that I’m better than them,” Ortega said. “At the same time, I explain to them, ‘I can’t be with you outside anymore like it used to be.’ Now, we hang out and we do things on my terms. ‘You guys love me, right? Keep me safe. You guys respect me right? Let’s do things this way.’ The game just changed. And for me, these guys have all been loving. They know not to bother me during training camp. They know not to take me out, even after I win. They know where to take me out to, where not to.”
Ortega is very cognizant of where he came from, where he is now and the relationship between those two versions of him. Gracie has been there half his life, which is why he believes anything that happens for Ortega from here is just gravy.
“For me, we’re already celebrating,” Gracie said. “Being here is already a victory in itself. And yes, winning the UFC featherweight championship would be phenomenal, really for Brian. I’m just so excited for him, knowing what he came from that this would be something so meaningful for him and his family.”