'The look of a champion': Why Brian Ortega is so confident ahead of UFC 266

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·Combat columnist
·5 min read
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LAS VEGAS — The beer commercial is still in regular rotation on television, and appears consistently in the arena during breaks in live UFC events, but the relationship between featherweight contender Brian Ortega and his coach that is touted in the ad was long ago incinerated.

As Ortega nears a second shot at the title when he challenges champion Alexander Volkanovski on Saturday in the main event of UFC 266 at T-Mobile Arena, the change in him is obvious.

Confidence oozes out of him. He’s doing things that he hadn’t done before, and he has belief in what his coaches are teaching him.

“If you don’t have belief in your coaches, it’s hard to have confidence in yourself,” said former UFC champion T.J. Dillashaw, Ortega’s new teammate. “When you’re happy and you believe in your coaches and you have great teammates to push you, when you have the kind of talent he has, it’s super impressive.”

After Ortega split with long-time coach James Luhrsen, he was angry and bitter. He felt let down coming off a one-sided loss to Max Holloway in his first bid for the featherweight title.

It only takes a few seconds of listening to him speak to understand the change in him. Even the fight’s postponement in March, when Volkanovski contracted COVID-19, didn’t bother him.

He looked at it as a positive.

“I have a great team that is very detail-oriented and has a plan for helping me to improve, and so pushing the fight back [six] months gave me more time to work on things and get better,” Ortega said.

Ortega’s only fight with his new team was an Oct. 20 victory over Chan Sung Jung, aka “The Korean Zombie,” in Abu Dhabi. Ortega won the fight going away, besting the Zombie in striking, which is his strong suit.

It showed a lot of growth, but Dillashaw saw something else in him.

“It was very impressive and it was one of those fights where he showed what a gamer he is,” Dillashaw said. “He did things in there he didn’t even do in practice. Obviously he had a game plan going in, but he just really stepped it up. He looked great getting ready for that fight, but even better when he was in there. That’s what you love to see.

“My main point is that he’s a gamer. He’s a guy who is going to show up and perform when the lights come on. That’s the look of a champion right there.”

Huntington Beach, CA - September 17: UFC featherweight Brian Ortega training at the Huntington Beach Ultimate Training Center, Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. Ortega will face UFC champion Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 266 on Sept. 25 in Las Vegas for the title. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)
Huntington Beach, CA - September 17: UFC featherweight Brian Ortega training at the Huntington Beach Ultimate Training Center, Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. Ortega will face UFC champion Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 266 on Sept. 25 in Las Vegas for the title. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

Dillashaw is recovering from knee surgery. He scored an impressive win over Cory Sandhagen in July despite injuring his knee early in the fight. He basically won while fighting most of it on one leg.

That served as inspiration to Ortega, and it sent him a message as he entered camp for his own bout.

“It let me know the caliber of people I’m working with now, someone who could go out and do what he did in that kind of a situation,” Ortega said. “ … And it helped my confidence because it lets me know I’m in the right place with the right people.”

Ortega said all the right things after his loss to Holloway, but it was difficult to accept losing that kind of a one-sided bout. Getting back to peak Ortega has been a process.

And when Volkanovski had to postpone the fight, that led to an opportunity that got the thoughtful Ortega thinking. The UFC chose him and Volkanovski to coach on "The Ultimate Fighter."

It was a meaningful choice to him.

“It was like this ‘Why me?’ kind of a moment when they asked me to do it,” Ortega said. “There are all these great people out there and they asked me. That meant a lot to me and it put my mind in a great spot.”

The best is yet to come for Ortega, who has been highly impressive in going 15-1 overall in MMA and 7-1 with a no-contest in the UFC.

He’ll be in pound-for-pound territory before long if he continues to improve given where he is and what he has done.

Dillashaw helped Cub Swanson train for Ortega when they fought in 2017. Swanson now helps Ortega train and Dillashaw can see the difference.

“I got some rounds in with him [when I was preparing for Sandhagen] and I was super impressed with him,” Dillashaw said. “He has a great jab, he’s able to keep the distance and he’s real tall for the weight class, especially fighting Volkanovski. He’s going to have such a huge reach advantage. His jab is so sneaky and he’s able to load up his punches.

“He sneaks those punches in there real well. He kind of lulls you to sleep a little with his motion and then he’ll crack you. Cub did well with him with his speed, but now Cub works a lot with him and I can see how different it is now. This guy has really come a long way.”

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