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UFC featherweight Brian Ortega poses during a workout Feb. 6, 2024, at Huntington Beach Ultimate Training Center in Huntington Beach, more than two weeks before his rematch with Yair Rodriguez on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, in Mexico City. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily ɫ̳/SCNG)
UFC featherweight Brian Ortega poses during a workout Feb. 6, 2024, at Huntington Beach Ultimate Training Center in Huntington Beach, more than two weeks before his rematch with Yair Rodriguez on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, in Mexico City. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily ɫ̳/SCNG)
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Brian Ortega’s occupation has taken him all over the world.

The UFC featherweight has competed close to his South Bay home in arenas like The Forum and Honda Center, flown into big cities like Las Vegas, Toronto and New Orleans and impressed overseas in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

But on Saturday, Ortega’s bucket list gets another check mark when he takes on Yair Rodriguez in a rematch in Saturday’s co-main event in Mexico City.

“Dream come true. There has always been a vision, now it’s going to come true,” said Ortega, whose parents are from Sonora, of fighting in Mexico’s capital. “I’ve always pictured me fighting in Mexico. I’ve always pictured when this is going to happen.”

His fighting career has also taken him to the mountaintop twice, only to come up short in both title fights. His first loss, after a doctor mercifully , at the end of 2018 sent him spiraling.

Battered and broken, Ortega celebrated his 28th birthday by . He emerged from the chasm swearing off drinking, determined to never fall that far again.

Four years later, he found himself sinking to new depths. “I thought I’d hit rock bottom,” Ortega said, “and I found out you can go further.”

Finally knocked down

Ortega, who turned 33 on Wednesday, is as respected for his elite jiu-jitsu as his chin, tested ruthlessly first by Holloway and again by then-champ Alexander Volkanovski in .

While both opponents were probably icing their hands for days after, neither knocked him down.

Ortega took 10 months to recover from the second loss before taking on Rodriguez on July 16, 2022. Ortega learned his right shoulder wasn’t as durable as his jaw, dislocating it after trying to extract his arm from a submission attempt. The fight, after a little more than four minutes, was over. .

Finally, life took him off his feet.

Brian Ortega is seen on the canvas with doctors after suffering a shoulder injury against Yair Rodriguez during their UFC on ABC 3 main event Saturday, July 16, 2022, in Elmont, N.Y. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
Brian Ortega is seen on the canvas with doctors after suffering a shoulder injury against Yair Rodriguez during their UFC on ABC 3 main event Saturday, July 16, 2022, in Elmont, N.Y. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

“I was thinking of not fighting anymore. I didn’t care about it. Yeah. I didn’t care about it,” the Lomita resident said. “Life has hands, man, and it worked my life more than any opponent has ever.”

The next few months were cruel and unrelenting. He underwent shoulder surgery – the same shoulder that .

“The guy told me the threading on the original surgery, it was like dental floss,” Ortega said. “He goes, ‘I don’t know how you kept your shoulder intact doing what you did from 2016 till now.’”

Ortega was laid up, unable to take his Jeep four-wheeling, go surfing or just train. What were once outlets for him were now stolen from him.

He lost friends. He buried friends.

Then came a public breakup with fellow UFC fighter and fiancée Tracy Cortez, the end of a three-year relationship.

Then two more surgeries – one on each elbow after Ortega said three bones began to grow on the inside of each one, clashing with his nerves any time his arms got hit and causing his limbs to go limp.

“Literally, when I look at the X-rays, they’re like three big spikes,” he said.

And the final kick in the gut came when Ortega was training one day and said his right shoulder felt tired. His coaches advised him to get an MRI. Two weeks from being ready to fight, now Ortega was told he needed another surgery after one of the anchors had given way.

“The hardest one was the last one,” Ortega said. “Yeah, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, just everything.”

Ortega says he never felt so alone, so he made it his business to be alone. He holed up in his house and walled himself off from the world, save for DoorDash meals, and wallowed in his pain, numbing it with pain medication and alcohol for three or four weeks.

Isolated while coping with loss, betrayal and heartbreak, Ortega performed an autopsy on his life.

In the end, there was no one else to blame.

“I woke up and I was just like, ‘I have all my cars, my house, everything I always wanted, but I’m here alone,’” Ortega said. “And I said, ‘Congratulations, you (bleeping) idiot. You got everything you wanted, right? At what price?’ You left your family, I left the mother of my children, I found myself in another relationship that later on was just definitely not it … and then everything came pouring after that.”

Then a year ago, Ortega found his way out of his misery completely by chance: “I started going to church.”

Like a submission hold

Jeremy Johnson noticed Ortega when he and Cortez had attended his Fearless LA Church a couple of times on Hope Street in downtown Los Angeles.

“He was just a guy that came,” the Fearless LA lead pastor said. “You know that a lot of people come one time, you know, just to check off the box called ‘church.’”

The Christian church, which also has campuses in Santa Ana and San Diego, had a three-day conference coming up in February 2023 – “from morning to night, we have about 1,000 people come in and 100 pastors,” Johnson said – and Johnson reached out to Ortega via Instagram to invite him.

Ortega initially declined and said he probably wouldn’t be coming back. But then Ortega opened up.

“He said, ‘Man, I’m a mess. I need help,’” Johnson said. “And I said, ‘Well, how can I help?’ And he goes, ‘Can we meet up?’”

Johnson suggested maybe they could after the conference. Ortega pushed to meet that very day and said he’d be working out at one of his coaches’ gyms. So Johnson put on his gym clothes and drove for a workout and a meet-up.

“I think he was shocked when I didn’t show up in like a priest uniform or a pastor uniform,” Johnson said.

Ortega spilled his guts to this pastor he had just met, who told him he had a solution and asked Ortega to get on his knees and pray with him.

“There was something that happened that day. And it’s like, he not only gave his life to God, but it was like he said, ‘God, you’re gonna be the Lord of my life, you’re gonna be in charge,” Johnson said. “It was almost like a submission hold, you know? Like, I’m crying out for mercy, I need you. I can’t do this without you.”

Ortega then joined Johnson on Feb. 19 of last year at the three-day conference. He showed up at 6 p.m. and didn’t leave until 1 a.m.

The truth is, he didn’t want to leave. “I never broke down so much in my life. It felt good. I felt something, like peace, which is something I haven’t had in a long time,” he said.

Fearless LA lead pastor Jeremy Johnson puts his hands on and prays with UFC featherweight Brian Ortega. (Photo by Manuel Aquino)
Fearless LA lead pastor Jeremy Johnson puts his hands on and prays with UFC featherweight Brian Ortega on Feb. 19, 2023. (Photo by Manuel Aquino)

Johnson described a moment when a pastor was calling people up to the stage who were in need of God’s love. Johnson made eye contact with Ortega, who was there with his family and shook his head. He didn’t want his two young sons to see him so vulnerable. In his mind, he was a proud warrior, fighting in the streets before and during his UFC career, and they were never to see him as soft or weak.

Once Ortega went up on stage, his life changed. “He said, ‘I just needed a hug from God, if I’m gonna stand up here,’” Johnson remembered. “And he said, ‘I felt like God’s arms wrapped around me.’”

But then Ortega felt two more hugs. His sons had run to the stage to embrace him, witnessing their father break down and cry for the first time.

“Getting close to God and getting to be in that environment, where things are different and they come to you in a different perspective,” said Ortega, who was also baptized that night. “Realizing I’m not the only one that’s in pain, seeing a church full of people who are in pain, seeing the pain in their eyes. I can relate to them when we all walk up to the altar. Again, I guess knowing that you’re not alone.”

Johnson has watched Ortega commit himself to being better to his family, his sons as well as the mother of his children. And in the process, his once-shrinking circle has grown.

He has gained a spiritual family.

“We’re going to be with Brian and we’re going to be his family,” Johnson said. “You know, I’m going to be a fan of what God’s doing in his life, whether he’s the champion or he’s done, you know? So I think having that support system is different.”

UFC featherweight Brian Ortega reacts after being baptized at Fearless LA Church in downtown Los Angeles. (Photo by Manuel Aquino)
UFC featherweight Brian Ortega reacts after being baptized Feb. 19, 2023, at Fearless LA Church in downtown Los Angeles. (Photo by Manuel Aquino)

Working on the inside

As bright as it all sounds, Ortega will be the first to tell you, as a person, that he is far from a finished product.

“I take accountability for myself, right? No more pity parties,” Ortega said. “No more than just acknowledging. Taking accountability and making efforts to change everything that I don’t like. Yeah, that’s the struggle.”

Ortega and Johnson have developed a close bond, their sons becoming good friends. Johnson recalled a moment at a Galaxy game with their kids last year when a fan in front of them asked Ortega, with just one victory in four fights in the past five years: What happened?

Fearless LA lead pastor Jeremy Johnson, front, and UFC featherweight Brian Ortega, rear, take in a soccer friendly between Barcelona FC and Arsenal with their sons July 26, 2023, at SoFi Stadium. (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Johnson)
Fearless LA lead pastor Jeremy Johnson, front, and UFC featherweight Brian Ortega, rear, take in a soccer friendly between Barcelona FC and Arsenal with their sons July 26, 2023, at SoFi Stadium. (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Johnson)

Said Johnson: “And Brian just said to him like, ‘Hey man, I have the outside right? But I didn’t have the inside right. And no matter how good and strong I got on the outside, if the inside wasn’t right, I wasn’t gonna win any more fights. Because I was losing on the inside.

“And he said, ‘I’m working on the inside now.’”

Paul Herrera, one of Ortega’s coaches at Huntington Beach Ultimate Training Center, says Ortega had been through “a whlrlwind” and worked through it.

This version of Brian Ortega, Herrera says, is the most balanced he has in the nearly four years Ortega has trained with him and manager Tiki Ghosn.

“This fight could be done quick. This might not be a five-round war,” Herrera said. “He can make it a war if he wants to, but he’s so, you know, where you have that natural ability in the beginning to come back and win and have that? He has that drive and those attributes mixed in with now solid, emotionally solid, technically sound, mentally sound structure.”

As a fighter, Ortega says he feels healthy and strong, with the scars to show for it. In his head, he felt like he was becoming a better fighter but had his doubts.

Then his team showed him video of his last camp. The improvements were glaring. They pulled up the data on his strengthening and conditioning. He is setting personal bests.

Volkanovski successfully defended his featherweight title against Ortega (15-3, 1 NC) and Rodriguez (16-4) – narrowly escaping a guillotine choke from Ortega in the third round before winning via unanimous decision at UFC 266 in 2021 and overwhelming Rodriguez for a third-round TKO at UFC 290 in July.

He says Saturday’s clash will be “an interesting one” after their first clash ended so prematurely.

“Yair looked great early in that one, but I mean, obviously, you’ve got that danger submission game from Ortega,” Volkanovski said three days before on Saturday at Honda Center. “And Ortega’s tough, so he can wear the shots. I think he’s going to wear the shots, but I think he can take it well.”

Topuria, who has fought neither, declared before he even won the title that as champion he wouldn’t give either fighter a title shot. To Topuria, it would be MMA’s version of the transitive property. If Volkanovski had vanquished Ortega and Rodriguez and he took out Volkanovski, why should he bother with either of them?

But that didn’t hinder the new 145-pound king from giving his assessment and throwing a verbal jab Rodriguez’s way.

“I think Brian Ortega is a better fighter than Yair and I think he gets the win,” Topuria said on Feb. 14. “Yeah, because Yair, he sucks. He’s a very bad fight for me in my eyes. He sucks. Brian is a better fighter, he’s a more complete fighter. Yeah, he has more possibilities against Yair.”

Johnson says Fearless LA will probably host a UFC watch party Saturday on the big screen in its 1,000-seat auditorium. He considers himself blessed to have made this connection and friendship and, as of Tuesday, was trying to find a way to get to Mexico City and see the fight in person.

Ortega has been in this situation before, in the Octagon prepared to go to battle and bleed for his pursuit of greatness.

Fearless LA lead pastor Jeremy Johnson, left, leads the congregation, as it surrounds Brian Ortega, in praying for the UFC featherweight. (Photo by Amris Mendoza)
Fearless LA lead pastor Jeremy Johnson, left, leads the congregation, as it surrounds Brian Ortega, in praying for the UFC featherweight Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. (Photo by Amris Mendoza)

This time, there’s more to it.

“He feels like he’s fighting for something now,” Johnson said. “Not just fighting for a belt, but fighting for his family and everything.”

Ortega is quizzical about whether the fans in Mexico City will support an L.A. native – “I’m a Chicano” – versus one of their own who hails from Chihuahua.

Not only does Ortega get to live out a dream and reconnect with his roots in his family’s homeland, it is with a welcome wave of support, a full heart and his newfound faith.

“Yeah. I’m curious. But I also put it in my head and I’m like, ‘If they boo, I’ll get you guys to cheer,’” Ortega said. “And if you cheer, I’m gonna get you guys to keep cheering.”

UFC Fight Night 237

When: Saturday

Where: Mexico City Arena

How to watch: ESPN+ (prelims, 4 p.m.; main card, 7 p.m.)

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