For a number of years, Brian Ortega had no interest in sharing anything about his personal life with the people that knew him as a result of his professional pursuits.
As a rising star in the UFC featherweight division, the guarded Harbor Area native always wanted to keep the focus on himself, his work in the cage and in the gym, and if you strayed too far outside of those lines, the amiable, engaging Ortega would bristle and bite back.
Which is why it came as a surprise — hell, a shock — when the 31-year-old introduced his two sons, soon-to-be 10-year-old Caleb and eight-year-old Joshua, to the members of Team Ortega on Season 29 of The Ultimate Fighter and began posting photos and videos with them on social media over the last year.
“I was very unsure of what to do when it came to my family, especially my children,” said Ortega, letting out a long laugh when I ask him about the switch in approach just a couple days ahead of his return to action against Yair Rodriguez this weekend when the UFC returns to ABC. “My mentality was they’re none of you guys’ business. Your business is with me; you want to find out about my career.
“Why you want to talk about my personal life? Why you want to talk about my kids? I was very hostile. I was very confro…”
He stops himself off, pausing to find the clearest way to express his thought.
“I was very Papa Bear,” he said. “For me it was, ‘Don’t f*** with my kids, man!’”
His hesitation came from being unsure how the public would react and not wanting to subject his boys to life in the public eye. Growing up can be difficult for anyone, but the challenges and pressure can be different, even harder when your dad is a famous fighter and a two-time UFC title challenger.
“I don’t want people picking on them just because of who I am,” Ortega said, pulling back the curtain on what caused his concerns. “I don’t want people talking s***. To me it made sense to stay incognito and let them live a normal life where they go to school, no one knows who they are, and they get judged for them, not who their dad is.
“Kids are ruthless and adults are even worse if they are weirdos and creepers. My main thing is I just want to protect them. I don’t want them to ever have to go through any feeling where I know I’m the cause of it.”
But after several conversations with his partner, surging UFC flyweight Tracy Cortez, and a great deal of thought, Ortega started opening up and allowing the world to learn more about his family, and a have a deeper glimpse into his world.
It started with a single Instagram post, one he was ready to take down swiftly if he saw any comments or reactions that he didn’t like. But instead of his worst fears coming to life before his eyes, the opposite happened.
“It was all positive, and I was like, ‘This is cool,’” said Ortega, still sounding a little blown away by the positive vibes and supporting comments that have be flowing through his social media channels. “Slowly, but surely, I’ve been sharing them a little more; walking them through very slowly, teaching them more as we deal with more situations.
“It’s been dope,” he said, sounding genuinely happy. “It’s been amazing. Me, Tracy, them, we hang out, we go to the beach, we go to LA Galaxy games, we go everywhere and we’ve got a good little system.”
Everything moving in a positive direction outside the cage also allowed Ortega to deal with the latest bout of adversity he faced inside the cage.
Last September, the 31-year-old landed his second crack at the UFC featherweight title, squaring off with Alexander Volkanovski in the main event of UFC 266 in Las Vegas.
He’d fought for the belt nearly three years earlier against Max Holloway, and landed on the wrong end of a one-sided loss, leading to a massive overhaul of the team he surrounded himself with and a desire to strip his game down to the studs and rebuild it step-by-step, making sure to fill in the gaps that had previously been left agape.
In his first fight after losing to Holloway, Ortega looked like a different fighter, including having shaved his signature flowing locks down to the wood before boxing up “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung to earn his crack at “Alexander the Great.”
Every Brian Ortega Finish
Every Brian Ortega Finish
Once again, things didn’t go as he’d hoped, with the Australian champion starting fast and showing no interest in slowing down, busting Ortega up with his clean, crisp strikes and pushing an exhaustive pace.
Midway through the third round, there was a glimmer of hope: the battered Ortega caught a Volkanovski low kick and followed it with a clean left hand that landed flush, putting the champion on the deck. The challenger instantly clamped onto a mounted guillotine choke — one of his signature submissions — and appeared to have Volkanovski dead to rights.
Miraculously, the champion survived and wriggled free, sliding out of a D’arce choke attempt as he worked back onto top position and once more began raining down blows on Ortega. But the challenger was still game, throwing up and locking onto a deep triangle choke attempt off his back, once more forcing the champion to focus all of his energy on staying conscious and escaping the hold.
Once more, Volkanovski found a way out, ultimately cruising to a unanimous decision victory.
“Honestly, it just sucks,” Ortega said when asked about the champion’s Houdini-esque escapes. “I thought it was over. I thought he was done. I thought I finished him and he was about to tap out, but he didn’t, and I was shocked.
“Obviously you’re like, ‘What the f***?’ The fight keeps going, you shoot another submission, and you’re like, ‘Well this one’s going to stick’ and he gets out of that one, and you’re like double ‘What the f***?’ You shoot more and it slips out, and you end up on the bottom and, at that point, my orbital was already fractured.
“I was hoping that he tapped out because I was seeing three of that m*****f*****.”
He didn’t, and for the second time in a couple years, Ortega was left to deal with the disappointment of a championship defeat and try to figure out what went wrong.
Unlike the first time, however, this time he was already surrounded by people that knew how to lift his spirits and quickly get him back to work on fixing the mistakes, filling the holes in his game, and finding ways to ensure that if the opportunity ever presents itself again, he’s able to make the most of it.
“I have good people around me that are honest and will tell me, ‘Yo, this sucked, this sucked, and this sucked,’” he said, laughing. “It’s good because they tell you and then you can just get to work. I just keep going. I look at film and study how I would beat me, and I study the things I could have done better, and I work on them all.”
“The hardest part is just getting back to work after being demoralized like that, losing; second championship fight and all that,” admitted Ortega, whose only two setbacks have come in championship assignments. “It sucks and it does put you down, but you’ve got to snap out of it.
“For the most part, my team knows to leave me alone; no one bothers me for two or three weeks. The main one that had to deal with my s*** was Tracy — she was there and it made everything better.”
He paused, seemingly reflecting on the memories and the feelings that accompanied them.
“One week after my fight, I was in New Jersey doing meet & greets,” he said, chuckling, still a little surprised at how quickly he was ready to get back out into the world following his defeat. “It was good because I just got reminded of how beautiful life is.”
There were times not that long ago where you probably wouldn’t have heard Brian Ortega share such a sentiment, because it wasn’t ever really the case.
He felt unsure about his training — desperate to change things, but dissuaded from dismantling a system that had always produced positive results — and kept his personal life tucked far away from the spotlight, worried that sharing that side of himself with the public would bring unnecessary scrutiny, unwanted negativity, and would cause those closest to him pain.
Now, he can say it with such ease and softness in his voice that you know he truly does feel that way.
“Before I was always good, but my life was chaotic,” admitted the featherweight standout. “I’m one of those people that thrives in the chaos, and since I was thriving, I thought I was good; I thought that was just what life was, until you actually buckle down and realize it’s not.
“My career is always going to be stressful because it’s hard training, and chaos, and workouts, and rest, and eat, and diet, but even that’s changed because I have a plan now.
“And my life outside of fighting is amazing,” he added. “I got someone that can go through life with me; a girl who loves me, and I love her, and I’ve got support. I have love coming in from everywhere, and at the end of the day, that’s what matters.”
UFC Fight Night: Ortega vs Rodriguez, took place live from the UBS Arena in Long Island, New York on July 16, 2022. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards, and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC FIGHT PASS!