DUBAI: After a long wait and plenty of trash talk, UFC number two-ranked Brian Ortega will on Sunday finally meet The Korean Zombie in an eagerly-awaited Featherweight bout at Fight Night on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island.
Many expect the winner of the fight to get a shot at the title, and all eyes will be on one of the standout matchups of Fight Island 2, the five-event series that kicked off on Sept. 27 with UFC 253, will wrap up On Oct. 24 with UFC 254.
Ortega has not fought since a fourth round TKO loss against Max Holloway at UFC 231 last December, but he feels he is back as strong as ever.
“It feels great,” he said. “In the beginning, after the (Holloway) fight, you’re like I need a break from MMA, and when I got the break, I was ready to get back in. Everyone’s been watching the whole story and knows what’s going on. I’m excited to be back - happy to be back. It was a good thing for me and my career, to relax a little bit. I was working non-stop for a long time. My mind, my body, needed to chill. My family needed to see me a bit more, basically reconnect with me because I had the blinder full on. But now… I’m back on the horse.”
Ortega admits that his first ever UFC loss was tough, but that dealing with it gradually has helped him get over it.
“You lose and you kind of understand on the day of the fight,” he said. “After that it sinks in a little more, and then a little more. And then you start understanding the nature of the sport, how it goes, and then you let it go. And that kind of the way it was, I went in there, accepted it and let it go.”
Ortega insists that there is no bad blood between him and The Korean Zombie, despite what has been portrayed in certain parts of the media after a back and forth of trash talk eventually led to him slapping a friend of his opponent at a UFC event in March.
“No, it’s not personal, not with him,” the 29-year-old said. “I saw him the other day and I didn’t say anything and he didn’t say anything. If it was personal, we would have jumped on each other. It was just something that happened, an incident that was done on my part, and just a way of shutting up the trash talk.”
Ortega’s status as the second-ranked UFC featherweight means a title fight could be next in line should he prevail on Sunday. His intention was always to get back into the octagon against a top rival.
“(This fight) for me was about, alright, you took your break, you did everything, but also I’m not trying to come back and take an easy fight in,” he said. “I’ve never once in my life taken an easy fight. If you watch my entire career right off the bat, my second fight in UFC was against [Thiago] Tavares who had more fights in UFC than I had in my career. I’ve never looked to take an easy fight nor will I ever start to look to take any easy one. For me it was who’s on fire, who can we fight. And then we looked at The Korean Zombie on a winning streak, and the internet somehow tangled us together, the world wanted to see the fight…and now I want to fight him.”
Despite some negative publicity, the American believes that he can still call on the support and love of many UFC fans.
“I feel like a lot of people who see me still love me, some of them are a little upset recently which I cannot blame them for,” Ortega said. “If I had to input both sides on a scale, I’d say I’m still more loved than I am hated.”
Like most athletes around the world, he has suffered from the enforced stoppages that the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, but sees only positivity since he restarted his training camps.
“It was fun getting my team back together, getting a whole group of people working together, to connect and get on the same page,” said Ortega. “Then finally the pandemic obviously was another thing and we had to adjust according to the way we could. We had to get people tested, we had to shut the gyms down. We had to do private sessions only, one-on-ones, no partners. Then we had to get more people tested.”
“It was a little risky, but we did it and I’m happy we’re here now, corona-free and ready to fight.
For his part, The Korean Zombie (aka Jung Chan-sung), reiterated that he too holds no grudges against his opponent and is just happy to be fighting again after such a long break.
“I have nothing personal towards Brian Ortega, I’m excited to meet a great (fighter) who is ranked second,” he said. “I’m excited about this fight and I’ve been prepared for it for a long time.”
Despite suffering a number of injuries in recent years, the popular fighter says he managed to stay positive thanks to the support of his team and family.
“It is easy when you have people to cherish,” The Korean Zombie said. “I have my family, now I have three kids. This is what I’m good at, and I would love to be a proud father for them.”
He also believes that a win will almost certainly see him in line for a shot at the featherweight title he craves.
“I think it’s obvious, because (UFC President) Dana White mentioned officially in his interview and I think it goes without saying,” he said.
The 33-year-old insists that far from hampering his training, the coronavirus break may have inadvertently helped him.
“I think it actually works better, because I don’t get to socialize more, I don’t get to meet more fans,” he said. “I can focus on my training, so it works better for me.”
Being in the safe bubble of Fight Island in Abu Dhabi has only enhanced that sense of serenity.
“I only stay in the hotel so far, and I went to the beach for the first time today,” he said on Wednesday evening. “All the people are friendly here, and I like the service and I like the hotel.”
The Korean Zombie is aware of Ortega’s strengths and does not agree with those who perceive him to struggle against fighters who strike.
“Brian has great physique, he’s got power and he’s got submission skills,” he said. “This fight I’m not only using striking, I want to use all my skills in MMA. I’m not really focused on striking only.”
On the fact that neither his last three wins nor Ortega’s six have gone the distance, he said: “Ortega’s never been knocked before, he’s been hit 300 times versus Holloway. I’m not focused on a knockout, more importantly the win.”
Should he beat Ortega, The Korean Zombie will have an opportunity to become the first male fighter from Asia to hold a UFC belt.
“I really want to become a champion, more than anyone else,” he said. “But right now I’m focused on Brian Ortega. I’m not thinking too far ahead.”