How his boxing coach set Brian Ortega on the right path
When he was in the teen, formative stages of his fight career, Brian Ortega couldn't afford three meals a day, or two, and now he is one win away from stardom - on Saturday in the main event of UFC 231 he fights the #5 ranked P4P fighter, featherweight champion Max Holloway. The key figure between then and now is boxing coach James Luhrsen.
“I’d go with a friend and we’d buy the chicken nuggets and he’d eat half and I’d eat half. There was no buying dinner and lunch. It was dinner or lunch.”
Ten years ago Luhrsen approached the then 17-year-old Ortega on a SoCal beach.
“He was hanging with two guys who, I don’t know, they just didn’t look right,” said Luhrsen. “I asked him if he was Brian and he just gave me this smirk, and said, ‘Yeah.’ ... That day I met him, I asked him if he had any stand-up, and he said, ‘It’s OK.’ I asked him if he wanted to learn and come train with us, and he said he would."
The first day of sparring at the Fabela Chavez Gym in Carson, California, was three rounds vs. Luhrsen’s experienced younger brother.
“I asked him if he wanted to put the headgear on and he shakes his head and goes, ‘No headgear,’ and he went and got into the ring,” recounted Luhrsen. “I didn’t know how good he was, but I smiled real big because I knew right then and there that the kid had heart. He went with a bunch of us and I saw something in him. When we left, I said to my guys, ‘Man, I’ll tell you what, this kid is badass.’”
“I just don’t teach them how to fight, I try to teach them about life, too. And Brian, he really impressed me with the kind of man he is and the ethics he had. He was hanging with the wrong crowd when I met him and he needed to be pointed in the right direction. He’s special, obviously as a fighter, but just as much as a person. He can be anything he wants. He is a smart guy and he has a bright future.”
Ortega got a coach, and a future, and food.
“They’d invite me and I was like, ‘Oh, this is great,’ but it was also confusing because I didn’t know what I could order,” said the fighter. “I would order the cheapest thing on the menu because I didn’t want to take advantage. And if they didn’t finish their food, I was like, ‘Wait a minute. Can I eat the rest of that?’ I’d go out with them and order an appetizer, just getting started, and then whatever they didn’t finish, I’d eat. They called me the garbage disposal. I’d eat anything. That was fancy life, bro! I was loving it. I was like, ‘You didn’t finish your spaghetti? You didn’t eat your toast?’ The more people who came, the better it was for me because there was always more for me to eat.”
And today, just one win away from becoming a breakout star, Ortega is a good person, who would rather talk about his charitable efforts than himself.
“I believe we all have a responsibility to try to help other people in this world," he says. "To me, my ability to help and to do good for others will only increase if I’m more known and get to that really super elite level. That would be the huge benefit for me. It would put me in a position where I could just help more people.”