'He'll be Vinnie Chase and I'll be Drama': Brian Ortega fights for his family's dreams

play
Brian Ortega's unique MMA journey: From Hollywood to the Octagon (4:23)

Follow Brian Ortega's unique MMA journey, from rubbing elbows with Hollywood's elite to challenging for the UFC featherweight title. (4:23)

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. -- Brian Ortega was feeling good, like his career and his life had been elevated to the next level. It was December 2018, and Ortega was invited to a holiday party at the Los Angeles home of actor Robert Downey Jr.

Sure, a few weeks earlier Ortega had lost to Max Holloway in a UFC featherweight title fight. But he had looked like a warrior in defeat. Besides, Hollywood was calling. There he was, a kid who grew up in San Pedro, the heart of L.A.'s rough-and-tumble Harbor Area, schmoozing with Iron Man and Jamie Foxx.

A day later, Ortega crashed back down to reality. There were heavy rains in normally dry Southern California. His family's home in Torrance was flooded. And Ortega, the eldest son, was called into action. His father, Martín, told Ortega he had to crawl underneath the house and drain the water line.

"[Some] of my fears [are] spiders and darkness and claustrophobia," Ortega told ESPN. "So picture yourself underneath the house. And the house is full of water. So you're kind of breathing up, and the wood had all these little spiders in it."

Ortega made it to the main line and unplugged it -- only for dirty, toilet bowl water to cascade into his face.

"So I went from being Mr. Hollywood thinking, 'I'm the s---' ... [to] reality check -- you ain't," Ortega said. "Pops is in there, like, 'Get to work. You ain't s---.' And I was like, all right. It was a good, humbling experience, a reminder."

The anecdote is a perfect embodiment of Ortega's life -- full of ups and downs, successes and failures.

Ortega is on the upswing again. On Saturday, he challenges Alexander Volkanovski for the UFC featherweight title in the main event of UFC 266 in Las Vegas. After that Holloway loss and a knee injury that kept him away from the Octagon for nearly two years, Ortega bounced back last October by beating "The Korean Zombie," Chan Sung Jung, to earn another shot at the belt.

Regardless of whether he wins or loses this weekend, Ortega understands he's on a long journey. He has started to embrace the turbulence and is willing to take the licks as long as his family, specifically his 16-year-old brother, Chris, doesn't have to bear the same burdens.

"He's the kid I wish I was," Ortega said of his brother. "Good-hearted. He never got cold to this world. He's never seen things that forced him to do stupid things. He has a mind of his own. He speaks up for himself, he's got a great f---ing heart. This kid is amazing. He's everything I wish I was when I was young. I look at him and it's like, dude, this could have been me."


IT WAS 2008. Ortega was 17 years old and had just learned how to drive. For the first time, Martín let his son take out the family's prized truck, a gleaming new Ford F-150 with silver rims. Martín was hesitant, but Ortega begged, and his father relented.

That night, near their home, Ortega swerved when the car in front of him braked suddenly. The Ford F-150 veered off the road, clipped a tree and crashed into a brick wall, almost plowing into a nearby home. Ortega, who was not hurt, jumped out of the truck and started cursing at the other driver. The other driver accused Ortega of being drunk or on drugs. Ortega declined to comment on whether he was under the influence, and there is no record of police intervention.

When the rage died down, Ortega realized what he had done. His father's "dream truck" was totaled. Ortega ran from the scene. Not because he believed the police were on their way, he said, but because he feared what Martín would do to him when he found out.

"I actually didn't want to come home," Ortega said. "I was like, 'I'm not coming home anymore, man. I don't want to see you.'"

About four hours later Ortega did return home, and instead of an outburst, Martín's reaction was just relief that his son was OK.

"The car was completely destroyed, but what worried me was my son, that he didn't break any bones or get any injury because in a car accident a lot of things may happen," Martín said.

It was a lesson, Ortega said, but it didn't change the way he approached life at the time. He thought he got away with one, and said he remained reckless during those late teenage years.

But while the scope of his father's kindness didn't set in at the time, Ortega always remembered. Always knew he had to do better. Last November, Ortega bought Martín a souped-up Jeep Gladiator and presented it to him as a surprise with a mariachi band playing in the background. Martín was stunned. He nearly cried when he saw the tricked-out SUV.

"It was a very powerful emotion," Martín said. "I almost broke to tears, but seeing all the people there, I held back. But it was like the happiness I feel when he wins a fight. It's indescribable, but you feel it in your heart, something big and beautiful that I have never experienced before."

Martín grew up poor, unable to pay for shoes. He moved to California, initially as an undocumented immigrant, for a better life for his family: his wife Rose, then two daughters, then Brian and now Chris.

"He's given everything to [the family]," Ortega said. "And he just takes the short end of the stick. So it was about time Pops came up. [I] got him like the best of the best when it comes to the type of car."

It's a motivation that pushes Ortega through every day and every fight. He desperately wants to give back -- and not just to his father. Ortega started a nonprofit organization in 2018 to help get kids scholarships for training in martial arts and other sports. Downey, a big MMA fan, heard about the Brian Ortega Foundation and donated $50,000 to get it on its feet.

"All [Ortega] wants to do is help," actor Freddie Prinze Jr. told ESPN. "It's wild."

Ortega said he wants others to "break the cycle," which he was able to do -- overcoming issues with gangs, alcohol and drugs growing up in San Pedro.

"I broke that cycle in the craziest way, because I followed my dreams and I'm becoming something of myself," Ortega said. "So if I can do that, I know these kids can as well."

One of those "kids" is Chris, even though he had a different childhood than Brian. Chris, the youngest of four children, grew up in suburban Torrance. He doesn't face the same obstacles Brian did; instead, he goes to North Hollywood for acting lessons. Ortega takes pride in the fact that he helps Martín and Rose raise Chris.

"Chris knows his brother is a good example for him in all aspects -- fighting and being perseverant toward his goals, because life's not easy," Martín said. "Not a single career or sport is easy. You face a lot of obstacles and you may fall a bunch of times, but you have to get up, recover your self-esteem and keep going. And he's learned that from Brian."

Even with different upbringings, fighting remains a part of all of the Ortega men's lives. Martín grew up a huge boxing fan in Sonora, Mexico, but never had the time or money to train. When Ortega was 5 years old, Martín took him to his first kickboxing lesson, and when Ortega was 14, Martín took out a loan to enroll Ortega in Brazilian jiu-jitsu with Rener and Rorion Gracie. Now, Ortega is mentoring Chris in a similar way.

When Ortega had a role in the movie "The Tax Collector," he brought Chris on set with him to show him what it was like. Chris met actor Shia LaBeouf and others. And when Ortega was invited to Downey's home for the Christmas party, Chris tagged along. At one point, Chris was sitting on a couch between Downey and Foxx -- although Chris didn't know who Foxx was.

"I joined the acting world a little bit for him," Ortega said. "I was inspired by him to do it. ... And now that I'm in here a little bit -- got my foot in the door -- I can learn this industry. I can also walk [Chris] through this to the best of my abilities until you're an adult and you can walk yourself through it."


play
1:20

Ortega's dangerous childhood neighborhood

Brian Ortega describes the time he was shot at with his dad and uncle in front of their home and the things he saw in his backyard.

ORTEGA HAD A chance to go to a high school homecoming party last year with Chris. He used the celebration as a teaching moment. Ortega looked around the room and told Chris about all the groups gathered. He told him engaging with some of them, and the activities they partake in, could jeopardize his future.

"Everything on how to read a room -- I was teaching him," Ortega said. "I go, 'Notice how I can be ... having the best time and still not doing all these things.' I still don't have to drink, I still don't have to smoke, I still don't have to do drugs. I go, 'You can be that guy.'"

Chris initially wanted to be a fighter, just like his brother. He still trains in martial arts and fought in an amateur boxing match, but he isn't pursuing it as a career at this point. However, Chris is always around Ortega during fight weeks, even doing an open workout with him in front of the media and fans before a scheduled fight with Holloway at UFC 226 in July 2018. The evolution of the Ortega men, from Martín to Brian to Chris, is not lost on the teenager.

"It's a blessing, because I have my dad, my brother," Chris said. "They've been through a lot. I have so much respect for them, because they've been through so much. To have them tell me these stories, these life lessons -- [it's] everything."

On Saturday, Ortega could very well bring the UFC featherweight title home with him to Torrance. He looked like the best version of himself in dominating Jung last fall. He's one of the most dangerous submission artists in the UFC -- those lessons with the Gracies have long since paid off -- and is evolving as a striker, with fight-ending power in his hands.

Being the best in the world is surely the goal, but it doesn't end there for Ortega. Unlike when he was younger, "T-City" is thinking long-term. He's thinking about how to continue making a better life for his family and himself.

"He grew up in [San] Pedro," Chris said. "He grew up everywhere. In the [Harbor Area], there was a lot of problems around. It's hard to find a hero when there's nothing but villains."

Luckily for Chris, he doesn't have to look too far for his own heroes.

Ortega has a vision for what a beautiful future would look like for the two siblings. The popular series "Entourage" featured the lead character Vincent Chase, an A-list Hollywood star, and his posse, which included Chase's brother Johnny "Drama" Chase, a hapless C-list actor struggling to make it.

"I can be Drama and [Chris] can be the main character," Ortega said. "He'll just take care of me. He'll be Vinnie Chase and I'll be Drama. He'll be the young stud. I'll be old and washed up a little bit, trying to stay in shape. Hoping I land a gig. That's how I want to see it -- me just part of his crew."

And Ortega doesn't mind fighting in a cage or getting a little dirty underneath a flooded house to attain that.