One might forgive Brian Ortega for feeling like he has been here before. He has -- multiple times, in fact -- in the nearly three years since he last fought for the UFC featherweight title.
As the finish line draws near on the road to UFC 266 on Saturday in the promotion's return to International Fight Week in Las Vegas, the 30-year-old Ortega isn't one to dwell too negatively on the many canceled fight dates and injuries he has endured just to get to this 145-pound title clash against defending featherweight king Alexander Volkanovski (22-1).
"You basically train hard, something happens and then something else happens and you are locked in with an opponent," Ortega told "Morning Kombat" last week. "It's not like there is anyone else besides him who has a belt so there is really no one else to fight if the belt is what you are looking for. [The belt] is why I do it."
Even Ortega's original shot at the featherweight title in 2018 endured a setback on the build when then-champion Max Holloway pulled out to postpone the fight. Ortega went on to show incredible heart in a fourth-round TKO defeat via doctor stoppage that only set the wheels in motion for a long two years of injuries and aborted comebacks.
To Ortega's credit, when he did emerge from a long hiatus, his craft appeared to be at an all-new level when he dominantly blanked Chan Sung Jung last October over five rounds to secure a second title shot. Yet even that positive development still had its challenges when their original March date was postponed due to Volkanovski contracting COVID-19 and a chance opportunity for both to coach opposite one another on "The Ultimate Fighter" delayed the bout even further.
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"Things happen for a reason," Ortega said. "Maybe it wasn't time to fight him yet. Maybe it wasn't time for him to fight me yet. Whatever it is, it happens. I always say, 'don't complain, just adjust.' It's as simple as that."
Ortega, a native of Los Angeles who goes by the nickname of "T-City," doesn't see much value in comparing his mindset entering their original fight date at UFC 260 to right now. But he does cop to having been in as intense a place mentally just six months ago during his final interviews before the fight was postponed.
Has the submission expert who has worked hard to round out his striking game softened just a bit despite trading a few zingers with Volkanovski for TUF cameras?
"I mean, I'm still ready for some shit. It ain't going nowhere until we fight, we are still in some shit," Ortega said. "When you train for so long, you become more comfortable with the idea of the opponent. I have been ready. I had that initial [period] where I was in my mind with a lot of things and I still am but it's just different now.
"That wasn't trash talk, that was just speaking facts. I was just speaking facts but I think he dislikes me and I don't know why. I have an idea but, nevertheless, I have to do my job. If I go in there and do my job, I will have let him know exactly how I feel about him.
"He's so short, his words can't even come up to me."
If Ortega's recent two-year break from the sport can be credited with helping him build upon his fight IQ and striking -- two elements he will need in spades to decode the traps typically set by a technician of Volkanovski's caliber -- the time away also helped Ortega mature in important ways.
Looking back on his run through the Holloway loss, which went a long way in elevating his star and attracting new sponsors, Ortega admits to having led a rock-star lifestyle that wasn't sustainable for growth as a mixed martial artist.
"It got wild, I was wild for a good amount," Ortega said. "Some things I rather choose not to really talk about, you know? But it got a little wild. Now I am settled, now I changed my outlook. I'm either with my kids or my girl or training. I had to just taper down a little bit. After this fight, when I win the belt, I have to find a good happy medium to where I can do these things still in a healthy way.
"I'm Mexican, you know what I'm saying? We like to drink and party and that's every human being. And then when you are allowed unlimited booze, it's easy to dive in there. At least for me, I have to remind myself that I have to fight and that this is my downfall if I keep it up."
Ortega's new life is one that comes with a good amount of public scrutiny and interest, particularly after revealing on social media his new relationship with fellow UFC fighter Tracy Cortez. Ortega said the attention is "a good problem to have" and comes with the territory of being a high-profile fighter provided you have a thick skin to embrace both the good and bad.
With the spotlight firmly surrounding him entering what can only be assumed to carry the moniker of the biggest fight of his career, some have questioned whether Ortega is giving Volkanovski the respect he deserves. Some of that has to do with how often Ortega brings up the names of both Holloway and a new potential opponent that has caught his eye, welterweight contender Colby Covington, after the two shared a public exchange of words back in March.
"I look at it like this is a -- for sure -- defining moment fight in my career for the opportunity for me to become a world champion," Ortega said. "That is the No. 1 thing I have always wanted but it's bittersweet because that leaves one man [Holloway] out there who can say he already beat the champ or he has a win over him."
The biggest question from a tactical standpoint entering UFC 266 for Ortega is whether he will come out with a strategy and mindset more reminiscent of the warrior spirit he showed against Holloway or the tactical game he employed against "The Korean Zombie." To defeat Volkanovski, he will likely need a bit of both.
While Ortega refused to share any parts of his strategy ahead of time, he did promise that he isn't willing to rely on the judges to help him.
"I have to finish him. I don't like decisions," Ortega said. "What I mean by [calling Volkanovski] a 'decision fighter' is that there comes a point when you get in here that you either fight or you try to win and there's a difference. My fans know that I love to fight and that when I show up, you are going to get a show. Not one of my fights aren't a show. And even that one fight against 'Korean Zombie' where I said, 'maybe I will show that I can stick to a gameplan,' it was still entertaining. I can't say the same about my opponent's fights.
"Think about it, I fought Max once and people are still talking about that still. It's just the level of greatness that he had and the heart that I had and the show that I gave the people. [Volkanovski] fought him twice and no one is talking about it -- and beat him twice. These are just facts. Yet if you look at the pay-per-view numbers between Max and myself, we sold way more. There are certain things to where we have to realize as fighters that we are not just fighters but we are entertainers.
"Fans love me because they know that I entertain and know that when I go in there, I go and fight. I don't try to skim away with the decision. My opponent, he plays it safe."