In My Own Words: Be the change you wish to see in the world | By Brian Ortega
Editor’s note: This piece was originally posted in Dec. of 2017, before Ortega defeated Cub Swanson at UFC Fight Night 123.
I was in a cage fight when I was 15. Illegal and underground. No gloves. I was 15, the guy was 18. I was 124 pounds, the guy was like 155 or 160. My dad was there. I asked him (my dad) if I could do it and he helped me lie about my age to say I was 18. Got the guy in a triangle choke in the second round and I fell in love with it.
Back then, I didn’t even know what the sport was.
All of a sudden I’m in a cage with ring girls and this and that … I still didn’t know what MMA is. But I liked it. Whatever this is, I like it.
There was this guy named Chevitz. He was a teacher at North Torrance HS. Now he’s a Torrance cop.
At that time, because he was working with a lot of kids, he kind of saw something in me and said ‘Hey Brian, do you want to go to a UFC fight at the Staples Center. It’s Royce Gracie vs. Matt Hughes (UFC 60). I was like ‘yeah, I’m down.’ I tried not to get too excited but deep down inside, I was screaming ‘Oh my god, I get to go to a UFC fight.’
Watching the guys fight, I looked at Chevitz and I told him ‘this is what I want to do when I grow up.’
He said, if you really want to do it, you can do it. And that meant something.
After that fight, I was on a mission in my head to become a fighter.
Everyone laughed at me, even my own friends. ‘What are you doing that sh#t for?’
I would tell them, I guarantee you can’t last one round with me. And we would have friend fights in the backyard and I would take them out.
In a street fight, it’s different.
I fought all these illegal fights. I would drive all over. Some had gloves, some just had tape on your wrists and knuckles so you wouldn’t break ’em. At least, that’s what they thought.
Good thing I didn’t punch that hard when I was younger.
I loved it. I loved doing tournaments. I loved the competition.
Some of the fights I did, no one would show up.
We’d take a drunk out the stands to fight. ‘Who wants to fight this kid?’ Some guy, like 180, ‘oh oh, I’ll f#ck that kid up.’ I’m like, come on in.
The crowd eggs him on, and obviously we give him some shorts and some bullshit mouthpiece and some gloves, and we’d go for it. We’d just fight. It was crazy. I loved it.
There were times where I fought, the second my hand got raised, the cops raided the place and I’m running out the ring and avoiding all these cops.
There was never someone who believed in it like I did. So I was always believing, but I never had anyone to believe in me, I guess, to really tell me, ‘man, you are really good, let’s do this.’
And that’s what I was waiting for. You hear about people scouting. I always wondered if there was some secret scout in the stands at these illegal fights ready to pick this kid up who was me and it never happened.
Then finally I met James Luhrsen at 18 or 18 ½. I did my last amateur fight with him.The second I turned 19, he said, “You’ve got what it takes. You should go pro.”
That’s what I wanted to hear my whole life. And I finally heard it. But I was scared, though.
As a pro, in the beginning, I had to sell tickets to get paid. So you gotta be a hustler and you gotta worry about fighting. Luckily, I had a great support system at The Gracie Academy.
People made the effort to come and watch me.
My fifth pro fight, I got my first title fight.
By then, I already knew the steps.
My coach said, ‘you’re going to win this first title, then you’re going to win a second title in a harder organization, then we’re going to UFC and you’re going to get that title.’
I didn’t believe it until I got the first title.
Finally, I got the second title and got the call from UFC.
Bro, we’re one title away. It could happen.
Coming where I come from, that never happened to anyone like me.
Where I’m from, it’s cool, but it’s not cool. They like that I can beat people up and they use it to their advantage.
Just last year, some guy stepped into my face, I just smiled and nodded, ‘what’s up? I’m just here for peace.;
In my mind, I would have hit him already just for getting that close to my face. The way I was taught, you don’t give anyone a chance. Better safe than sorry.
I just smiled, looking at his hands. My friends are like killer bees, the second that it happened, he was surrounded. He had one in the back, two guys on the side, one behind me. And their looking at me like ‘just give the nod and you’re good to go.’
I did not give the nod.
Some good things come from fighting. Some don’t. I grew up in the projects of Pedro, then moved to Torrance/Carson area. I got kicked out of all the high schools in every city … Gardena, Carson, Narbonne, continuation schools.
The Harbor Area is everything — Carson, Wilmington, San Pedro, Long Beach, that whole little bubble that I grew up in. I always throw it up after I finish fighting, I always throw up the Harbor Area. Out of pride. It made me who I am. It brought me my goods, it brought me my bads, it molded me into who I am.
I throw up to LA too. I fought at The Forum.
I still live there, I’m still from there. Just the other day, I couldn’t leave my house because it was all blocked off. SWAT team, helicopter, everything. That’s just how it is.
I’m always wondering if something is going to happen, is this the guy, you never know.
I’m at a weird position. I’m not in that life anymore. I grew out my hair. I changed the way I look. I don’t dress like that anymore. I don’t wear the uniform of what it is.
I love the fighting part. If I could just fight in an empty room with the same person, take the money and walk out, that would be my perfect job.
Let’s say you reach a point where you become like a Conor McGregor, you’re life’s never going to be the same.
Your life is going to change. And I only have one, it’s not like I can take it back.
There’s no exit contract
Ultimately, my goal, I like helping people. Especially kids.
Before I was pro, I was always visiting kids in hospitals.
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
A lot of people read that quote and they do minor things, which is great. I’ve always done that. I will always do that.
But I feel like, I could do more. And what I really would love to do is put everything I love doing into one thing. I love traveling, I love helping people, I love training. How can I do all this together?
Besides the personal satisfaction, the better feeling is that you’re helping people out.
I’ve put myself in a position where I’m in a spotlight, and whether I like the spotlight or not, I have to use that spotlight to my advantage.
I would love to meet someone who loves the same causes and goes, ‘Listen man, here’s all this money, none of it goes to you, it goes to helping people but you use it to help people cause I don’t have the time to do it.’
That’s me, I don’t want your money. How can we do something together to help out? My dad couldn’t become a great boxer because he didn’t have any money, he didn’t have any gyms there for him. He had to resort for street fighting.
If I can do something on a small level, be the change I want to see in the world, that would be the perfect fit.
It’s weird, we’re in a selfish sport. You go in there because it’s all about you, and then after, we don’t do anything with it.
I know guys that have made a lot of money. Can’t take it to the grave with you.
Everyone’s going to go their own route in life. But you never know what kid you’re going to spark.
I was one of those kids. Chevitz doesn’t know what he did. He helped a spark. He helped me.
I’m undefeated, No. 6, fighting No. 4. There’s talk that whomever wins this fight could potentially get a title shot.
If I win the belt, that’s cool, but I have bigger dreams.
Fighting is great, but I can’t do it forever. But I can help people for a long time. I can travel till I’m dead. Airplane to airplane. If I can share some love, why not?
I’m just still trying to figure out how to do it.