How a chance encounter with a boxing coach set Brian Ortega on the path to UFC stardom

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
UFC featherweight Brian Ortega and his coach James Luhrsen in front of a mural of Ortega created by artists Tristan Eaton, Richard Wyrgatsch II and Alex Kizu in Los Angeles on Nov 5, 2018. (Getty Images)

Eating three meals a day was a luxury that Brian Ortega didn’t enjoy on a regular basis until a couple of years ago. When he was a teenager trying to make a career of mixed martial arts, he’d often go to a fast-food restaurant and order chicken nuggets.

A diet of chicken nuggets is hardly on the list of ideal foods for a world-class professional athlete, but this isn’t the entire story. Ortega, you see, didn’t eat a full order.

“I’d go with a friend and we’d buy the chicken nuggets and he’d eat half and I’d eat half,” said Ortega, who on Saturday will challenge Max Holloway for the featherweight title in the main event of UFC 231 at the Scotiabank Centre in Toronto. “There was no buying dinner and lunch. It was dinner or lunch.”

Ortega had a natural talent that was obvious even in his early days. He had flaws, as all fighters do, but he was so athletic that he could overcome his mistakes by being so physically proficient.

The problem with Ortega was not just his lack of proper nutrition or training. Ortega chuckles softly and says, “I had a bit of an attitude.”

It was leading him down a path that could be very different than the one he is on now. The fight with Holloway is arguably the best fight the UFC can make, and with a win, Ortega could become one of the sport’s biggest stars.

He’s a soft-spoken humble guy who would rather talk about his charity work and the work the Brian Ortega Foundation is doing than his MMA skills. He checks nearly every box and has the potential to be a Conor McGregor-level star if everything plays out properly.

“He has the ability to be a huge star, there’s no doubt about it,” UFC president Dana White said. “He’s a good-looking kid, he speaks well, he has a great back story, he’s super humble and most importantly, he’s a total badass. That’s what people really love about him. Everything is there for him to just explode.”

Frankie Edgar (R) and Brian Ortega fight during their featherweight bout during UFC 222 at T-Mobile Arena on March 3, 2018, in Las Vegas. Ortega won by TKO. (Getty Images)

Just 10 years ago, the outlook was vastly different. If it weren’t for a chance encounter with a boxing coach on a Southern California beach, the world may never have heard of Brian Ortega.

“I don’t even want to think of where I might be,” Ortega said.

Life changed for Ortega the day he met James Luhrsen. Luhrsen, who was headed out to surf, had heard about Ortega a few days before they met at the beach.

Luhrsen spotted Ortega, who was 17, and approached him.

“He was hanging with two guys who, I don’t know, they just didn’t look right,” Luhrsen said. “I asked him if he was Brian and he just gave me this smirk, and said, ‘Yeah.’”

The conversation eventually turned to fighting. Even by that point, Ortega had a strong reputation within the jiu-jitsu community, but he wasn’t much of a striker. Luhrsen offered to train him.

It was the beginning of a partnership that may have saved his life.

For Ortega, there were more practical considerations. Luhrsen and his wife, Mary, liked to go out to eat, and would invite Ortega to go with them. It was awkward at first, only because Ortega wasn’t used to being able to look at a menu and order what he wanted.

“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,” he said. “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.”

But the meals were just a sidelight to Luhrsen’s mentorship. Luhrsen wanted to see how tough Ortega was, so he brought him to the Fabela Chavez Gym in Carson, California, to spar.

“That day I met him, I asked him if he had any stand-up, and he said, ‘It’s OK,’” Luhrsen said. “I asked him if he wanted to learn and come train with us, and he said he would. So I told my brother and these guys I boxed with that this kid was going to come over and train with us. And they go, ‘Yeah, right. Sure. He’s not going to come over. No way.’ And I said that I thought he would.

“So, I live in a cul-de-sac and I went out and looked down the corner and sure enough, there he is in some old clunker car. I introduced him to my brother and the guys and I told them, ‘This is the kid. He’s supposedly really good in jiu-jitsu. Let’s see how he does in stand-up.’”

They arrived and agreed that Ortega would spar Luhrsen’s younger brother, who was a good fighter. They agreed on three rounds.

“I asked him if he wanted to put the head gear on and he shakes his head and goes, ‘No head gear,’ and he went and got into the ring,” Luhrsen said. “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.’”

That cemented their relationship and they became almost inseparable. Luhrsen began to regard Ortega as another son and Ortega viewed Luhrsen as a second father.

Brian Ortega is at UFC 227 inside Staples Center on Aug. 4, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Getty Images)

Luhrsen could see almost immediately that Ortega had immense potential as a fighter, but what he didn’t know was the kind of person Ortega would become.

“I just don’t teach them how to fight, I try to teach them about life, too,” Luhrsen said. “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.”

Luhrsen’s immediate future will be surgery on his knee. After a recent workout ended, Ortega grabbed Luhrsen in a playful manner, but Luhrsen felt something in his knee.

It turns out he tore his ACL and his meniscus and needs surgery to repair it. But with the fight so close, the surgery will wait. Luhrsen has a big brace and plans to work the corner in Ortega’s biggest night as he challenges Holloway for the title.

“You can’t ask for a better fight than this one,” White said. “This is an insane fight. I love it. I absolutely f—ing like it.”

If Ortega dethrones Holloway, who is fifth in the UFC’s pound-for-pound rankings, he’ll be on the pathway to stardom. As McGregor, Rousey and other big UFC stars have proven, there is big-money to be had at the top level.

But Ortega isn’t looking to buy a new car or any extra bling.

“It would be a dream come true to get to that level,” Ortega said. “You know then that you’ve really made it. For me, I understand you lose privacy and everywhere you go, you’re in the spotlight. I’m getting used to that now.

“But I believe we all have a responsibility to try to help other people in this world. 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.”

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