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Sports Illustrated Notebook: Brian Ortega relishes opportunity to build momentum for another title shot

Applying lessons learned through losing previous bouts on the big stage, 'T-City' aims to shine vs. Yair Rodriguez at UFC on ABC 3.
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Brian Ortega headlines this Saturday's UFC on ABC 3 card against Yair Rodriguez. It's a stage he welcomes and hopes will increase MMA's popularity.

"This is a great platform to shine on," Ortega says. "We can bring new eyes to the sport."

Fighting on ABC is a great opportunity for Ortega (15-2 MMA, 7-2 UFC), and a matchup against Rodriguez (13-3 MMA, 8-1 UFC) should be captivating. But Ortega's original goal wasn't to be in this fight. He appeared to be on the verge of winning the UFC featherweight title last September, locking in two different submission attempts on Alexander Volkanovski. Yet Volkanovski broke free from the submission specialist's grasp, and the performance instantly became one of the defining moments in his career – and a learning experience for Ortega.

"I was 1,000 percent confident Alex was finished," Ortega says. "I could hear the gargling, I could feel the desperation. In a small way, I began celebrating, ‘Oh sh-t, it's going to be over right now.' But it never came. He escaped. I got him in another one. He escaped fair and square. I understand now why he is the champ. I saw the resilience, the unwillingness to quit. It was a great fight. I tested his heart, and he came out victorious.

"My losses are examples of how I can get better. Maybe my triangles weren't as tight as I thought they were. That was a moment to remind myself not to forget who I am."

Ortega suffered his only two defeats in title bouts, losing by TKO via doctor's stoppage in an incredible 2018 fight against Max Holloway, and then, more recently, the unanimous decision defeat to Volkanovski. The losses continue to sting, but Ortega refuses to allow them to define him.

"It sucks not to win," Ortega says. "The pain is still there. But my drive is far stronger than the pain. For me, fighting is life. If I'm not fighting or training, I'm not at peace. That may sound strange to some. But it's my purpose."

As much as he would relish a run with the title, Ortega is still proud of the gains he has made in life to reach this point in his career.

"I was living in Section 8 housing," says Ortega, who grew up in the San Pedro neighborhood of California. "I didn't think I had a future. If I could go back and talk to my 13-year-old self and tell him who and what I've become, he'd say something like, 'Get the f-ck out of here. There's no way that's true.' I'm still getting to know myself now, and my confidence level has gone up through knowledge.

"I am honored and I am thankful to have people watch from all over the world. That's more than a small victory in life. Who the hell would have thought people would want to watch me fight another man? But we're here."

There are too many variables for Ortega to predict victory against Rodriguez. But he enters confident, and a victory would help generate momentum for a rematch against Volkanovski.

"Rodriguez, he's tough as sh-t," Ortega says. "If you slip up, he'll beat the f-ck out of you.

"But I'm going to give fans a hell of a show. I love them as much as they love me."

* * * * *

Charles Oliveira's next opponent will most likely be Islam Makhachev. But he should do everything possible to make it Conor McGregor.

Even if it isn't for the vacant lightweight title, McGregor is the greatest showcase fight in the division. There is no bigger name, and his personality outshines everyone else in the division. And he would significantly raise Oliveira's profile.

McGregor is no longer the same fighter, and he simply has never had the same explosiveness as a lightweight. Dustin Poirier capitalized on that in their last two bouts, both wins in his favor, and Oliveira would be wise to do the same.

Makhachev can wait. After McGregor, there will be ample opportunity for a title shot.

* * * * *

Usman Nurmagomedov fights Chris Gonzalez at Bellator 283. If all goes right, a win could elevate him to the No. 1 lightweight ranking.

The younger cousin of the legendary Khabib Nurmagomedov, the 24-year-old Nurmagomedov (14-0 MMA, 3-0 BMMA) is currently third in the division. The people in Usman's camp are really high on him, including Khabib, but he cannot afford to overlook Gonzalez (7-1 MMA, 6-1 BMMA).

Gonzalez possesses top-notch wrestling skills. Usman is training with some of the best grapplers in the world, but Gonzalez – who should be ranked – will be a legitimate test.

Bellator 283 is not a superstar-filled card, but it is a stacked one, especially this fight. And if Tofiq Musayev defeats top-ranked Sidney Outlaw in their lightweight bout, that opens a path for Nurmagomedov to be No. 1. A win would allow Musayev to jump the line, though that is warranted considering his background and previous win against reigning champ Patricky Pitbull.

There could be a major shakeup at next week's 283, leading to Usman as the top opponent in the lightweight division. He will still need one more win before a title bout, perhaps against Musayev or Benson Henderson, but a victory against Gonzalez will be paramount to Nurmagomedov's success.

This story first published at SI.com/MMA.