On the outside, it seemed Brian Ortega had it all. He has otherworldly talent and could do things inside the cage that other fighters could never dream of accomplishing.
He had a rags-to-riches story that was the stuff of Hollywood, and he became buddies with some of the film industry’s finest, including actress Halle Berry.
He racked up one-sided victories over some of the best opposition the UFC had to offer and had a relationship with his coach, James Luhrsen, that seemed idyllic. It was a storybook enough deal that a beer company built a major advertising campaign around it.
Things, though, aren’t always as they seemed. And as Ortega prepares to fight Chan Sung Jung, aka “The Korean Zombie,” on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+) in Abu Dhabi, life is nowhere near where it was the last time we saw Ortega in the cage.
That was on Dec. 8, 2018, at UFC 231 in Toronto, where Ortega was stopped by Max Holloway after four one-sided rounds in a bid for the featherweight championship. That Ortega lost was no shock; Holloway was then and remains now one of the world’s elite fighters. The stunner was how one-sided the fight was.
Ortega entered the fight 14-0 and had reeled off quality wins over Frankie Edgar, Cub Swanson, Renato Moicano and Clay Guida. He was, in many ways, the MMA version of boxer Oscar De La Hoya. De La Hoya won gold in the 1992 Olympics and became one of the biggest stars in boxing, his talent appealing to fight fans and his good looks appealing to the women who weren’t as interested in the fights.
Ortega had that kind of talent and those kinds of looks. He was poised for superstardom and a win over Holloway would have had him everywhere.
Nearly two years later, he’s back, not so eager to talk about the past but not so stunned by the problems he encountered in the title fight. He said he knew he was having issues in his camp going back for a while and things weren’t being addressed.
When a reporter mentioned Luhrsen’s name, Ortega quickly said, “You said his name; I didn’t.” He’d made clear he didn’t want to discuss the problems from his past.
“I don’t really want to go into detail about that,” he said. “I’m not in the business of making anyone look bad or trash-talking them. But there were behaviors and things that were said and things that were done after the fight that kind of made me officially realize where everyone truly stood; [and] what their intentions truly were.”
So he’s now training at the Huntington Beach Ultimate Training Center alongside ex-UFC champion T.J. Dillashaw, Swanson and Juan Archuleta.
He went on at length raving about the teaching methods and the attention to detail he’s received. But it’s been more than just improving his physical skills, Ortega said.
“I’ve had a lot of mental growth in terms of doing all this in a healthy way,” Ortega said. “Everything before was very unhealthy and very toxic. Things now are a lot smoother, a lot healthier and a lot easier and I can’t say anything else but this is the better option.”
He said he feels there has been a significant improvement in his skills and “for sure, no crazy drama like before.”
And there is, he said, a five-year plan, sounding like the general manager of a downtrodden NFL team embarking upon an ambitious rebuild.
It was something of a stunning statement in the sport where nearly every fighter utters the phrase, “I’m just focusing on this fight,” at least a dozen times per public appearance before a bout.
But he’s fully serious.
“We’re all just here doing our jobs and if we win, we win and if we lose, we lose, but no matter what it is, we’re going to get back to work and keep going. We have a five-year plan and we’re just here working now. I’m excited to work for five years and there’s a whole plan for me and my body and my career.
“It’s everything [that’s in the plan]: Things you want to accomplish. Things that can happen, things that can’t happen and things that probably will happen. You take everything and you take these mad scientists and [expletive] geniuses here working with me and you come up with a plan that you work toward.”
The fight with the Zombie figures to be one of the best of the year, and has the potential to lead the winner to a shot at champion Alexander Volkanovski, though there is no guarantee that will be the case.
But when that bell rings Saturday on Fight Island, it will mark an official end to the past and the issues, whatever they were, that Ortega felt the need to leave behind.
“I never knew this is what it could be like,” he said. “And when I think of what is possible for me now, man, I’ll tell you, I can’t wait. I smile just thinking about it.”
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