Editor’s note: This story was originally published prior to Brian Ortega’s fight against Max Holloway at UFC 231.
HARBOR CITY, California — On Aug. 8, 2008, Brian Ortega held one of his dearest friends on the side of the street as he bled to death from a gunshot wound.
A local report said the incident happened shortly after 9 p.m., when a silver vehicle rolled up on a group of teenagers who were gathered in the front yard of a residential property. Multiple rounds were fired, and the victim, a 17-year-old male named Daniel, was fatally struck in the back.
In that moment, Ortega wasn’t thinking about his own safety or his own life. He was already thinking about one thing: revenge.
“You’re not thinking about your future right there,” Ortega said. “You’re thinking about, ‘How am I going to get these m—–f—–s? Where do they hang out? How am I going to get them? What car am I going to use? What friend is going to go with me? Who’s a solid person, who won’t snitch when s— hits the fan?'”
If you really want to know the story of Brian Ortega, you should know it’s a story of two lives.
In one life, Ortega is an athlete. An undefeated, 27-year-old featherweight who will attempt to end Max Holloway‘s reign at UFC 231 on Saturday in Toronto. The only man to ever knock out Frankie Edgar and do it in the first round. A fan favorite who runs a foundation that helps get troubled youth into jiu-jitsu.
In the other, he’s that 17-year-old kid hanging on to a dying friend, ready to take a conflict to “the next level.” Some of the people who have known Ortega best use that phrase to describe him. He is good. He is kind. He’s a “pretty boy” in many ways. But in the street, Ortega was always willing to take it further. He never backed down.
Rener Gracie, Ortega’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach, has watched Ortega bounce between these lives since they met in 2004. Ortega would assist him in a seminar one minute and disappear for months at a time the next.
“There were times I wouldn’t see or hear from him in months, and in my mind, he was dead,” Gracie said. “I was just waiting for his father to come and tell me.
“Brian was going to end up dead or in jail, or time was going to do its thing, and he was eventually going to choose the right path. And I can tell you right now, I would never have been on one outcome over the other back then because there was no certainty with him. The person with the least predictable outcome in life, and the least guaranteed future I have ever met, was Brian Ortega.”
Ortega is the first person to say he always had a choice. Nothing about his life was forced on him.
The Harbor Area in which he grew up offered trouble to anyone looking for it. Gang activity was present, especially in the 1990s and 2000s. He grew up in low-income housing, and his father, Martin, used to park a motor home in front of the building at night, as a shield for stray bullets.
“Our neighbor did the same, and we would count the bullet holes in each vehicle every morning,” Martin said. “Gangs. Drug dealers.”
But Ortega knew plenty of kids who grew up in that area who never experienced some of the things he did. That was his choice. He knew good from bad and admits that he often chose bad.
“The first time I really thought it was cool to be like that, I was 13, and my parents left town for Mexico,” Ortega recalls. “We had a house party. Every person from our neighborhood came — all the gangbangers. There was weed everywhere. There was just a lot of activity, and I was intrigued. I was like, ‘F—, this is cool.'”
Whether Martin knew his son was susceptible to those influences or just understood the dangers of the area, he was the one who prepared Ortega to survive the streets. He taught him how to jump his first fence and instinctively seek cover if a suspicious car pulled up.
“There was actually a point where he told me to come home one night,” Ortega said. “I’m riding my bike home, and all of a sudden, this car behind me turns off his lights and guns it. I’m like, ‘F—, my time’s coming. I’m gonna get shot.’
“I drop my bike and start running, zig-zag across the street and hide under this car. In my head, I’m thinking I’m good. Then I hear my f—ing dad. ‘Hey, Brian! If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead.’ He was like, ‘Next time, book it to your right as fast as you can, and hop the first fence you see.'”
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Ortega never actually joined a gang, but he says he became the target of one. He and his best friend, Richard, knew how to fight and almost never turned one down. By the time he was 16, Ortega was basically living with Richard. He slept on the floor, which he does to this day because it’s so familiar.
Those two were best friends, but they were far from alone. At one point, Ortega’s crew went about 40 deep. The size of the group, along with their mentality, made for a combustible situation.
“We got so big in numbers, we started getting into s— only gangs do,” Ortega said. “And we shouldn’t have done that because we weren’t a gang. You’re supposed to bite the bullet and get punked around by gangs. We did the opposite. We said, ‘F— you.’ And that made us enemies.
“They came to punk us, and we said, ‘We’ll fight you.’ That don’t sit well. And once we made enemies, that’s when they came and shot Daniel. That was them saying, ‘All right. You guys took it there. Now we’re taking it here.'”
Not long after Daniel’s death, Richard was sent to prison for six years. Ortega figures the same things he watched play out with his friends would have happened to him — either prison or a bullet — had he not had that other life to save him.
The one he’d mostly kept secret for years.
Gracie had several first impressions of Ortega when he came to Gracie Academy with his father for the first time at age 13.
He was a small kid. Frail, even. His shoulders were slouched. His eyes were trained at the floor. He barely said a word — but he absorbed technique like a sponge.
Gracie remembers that Martin signed his son to a full, 12-month membership on the first day. He later found out that Ortega’s mother had concerns about the money. Martin committed to the year to ensure that Ortega wouldn’t drop out after a couple months.
“When he started me on it, he told me, ‘Don’t tell anybody you train, not even your friends,'” Ortega said. “‘It’s like a secret weapon. When the day comes you have to use it, use it. But don’t tell them s— until then.'”‘
When Ortega turned 15, he started to compete in unsanctioned amateur fights with Gracie. He loved the idea of facing a single opponent and not having to worry about someone jumping in from the side. He also loved the idea of not getting into trouble afterward.
“They were in backyards or little warehouses,” Gracie said. “You’d go into what looks like a house out front or a small business, and in the back, there is this open area with a tent. It’s literally an outdoor tent and a small cage with 150 to 200 people around. Everybody standing cageside. Brian was like, ‘This is awesome.'”
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Ortega won about a dozen of these fights over two years, relying almost completely on jiu-jitsu. He had no ambition or hope of turning it into a career, but his success didn’t go unnoticed.
Word got around that there was a kid from the Harbor who couldn’t lose a fight. Eventually, that word got to James Luhrsen.
One of nine brothers, Luhrsen grew up in Carson, which is north Harbor Area. He refuses to give his age but says the street fights of his youth involved mostly fists. He never had to worry as much about guns.
Luhrsen has two loves: surfing and boxing. He coached a handful of kids at a local gym, but nothing crazy. One time, he thought he had a future pro on his hands. His nephew. But the nephew ended up choosing school over the ring, and Luhrsen wasn’t about to argue with that.
He’s a man who loves his home and takes pride in knowing what goes on there. Between his connection to the gym and his eight brothers running around, Luhrsen heard a lot about the area’s youth — particularly its troubled youth.
So it naturally happened that Luhrsen came to know a lot about Ortega before Ortega knew a thing about him. When their paths did cross, Luhrsen had plenty to say to Ortega, who was 17 at the time.
“I had heard nothing but good things about this kid,” Luhrsen said. “I grew up with nine boys who knew everybody, and I was always hearing this name, ‘Brian Ortega.’
“I’m at the beach one day, and I see this kid. I said, ‘F—, that’s him.’ He was with a rough crowd. I went up and said, ‘Hey, why the f— are you hanging with these guys?’ They were looking at me, but I didn’t give a f—. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like seeing this good-looking kid, who I heard these good things about, going down that route.
“I let him know who I was and that I could teach him how to box. I said, ‘Brian, do you want to learn it? Do you want to learn the stand-up?’ He said, ‘Yeah, James, I really do.’ I told him, ‘OK, come to my house tomorrow.'”
Ortega had never let anyone speak to him that way, but there was something different about Luhrsen. He’d come from the same neighborhood and knew what Ortega was going through. Some of Luhrsen’s behavior shocked him, but he respected it.
“James would go right up to people and say, ‘You can’t hang out with Brian anymore,'” Ortega said. “I’d say, ‘But, James, that’s my homie,’ and he’d go, ‘F— that, I’m your homie. You don’t need that guy anymore.'”
In 2010, two years after adding Luhrsen as his striking coach, Ortega went pro in MMA. Within a year, he won four fights and headlined an event. By 2014, he had signed an exclusive contract with the UFC.
Martial arts wasn’t a hobby anymore or a secret weapon for self-defense. It was a future.
Martin was born in Mexico and migrated to the U.S. when he was 24. When he came to this country, all of his belongings could fit into a small backpack. One of those possessions was a pair of boxing gloves.
He was an electrician in Mexico, and he found work in the U.S. food industry. His real dream, though, was to become a professional boxer. He never took a pro fight, but he grew up boxing in the streets and won more than he lost.
When Ortega knocked out Edgar with a blistering uppercut in March, UFC cameras captured Martin’s teary reaction. As a fan of boxing, that was a special result for Martin. It was the cleanest knockout of Ortega’s career.
“I’ve always pushed him to do more boxing because he hasn’t always been comfortable doing it,” Martin said. “Getting to say to him, ‘OK, you did it,’ it was like I was talking to my younger self. I never thought I could feel that happiness in my heart. I never knew it existed.
“He says to me sometimes, ‘You’re living your dream through my life.’ And I say, ‘Pretty much, yes.'”
Ortega is one win away from a UFC title and fulfilling a lifelong dream for himself and his family — but occasionally, Luhrsen still worries. He worries about that split second when Ortega’s old life comes calling and if Ortega is still that guy who will take it to the next level. If he is still willing to accept any trouble that comes looking for him.
But Ortega says nobody has to worry about him anymore. The kid who has lived two lives is interested in only one of them moving forward.
“I’m done with it,” he said. “I’ve been there, done that. Survived it. Escaped it. I’m living good now.
“I’ve seen the worst. In my head, I’ve seen the worst. When I go into a fight, I’m all right. You know what I’m saying? I’ve already made it.”