TORONTO — Brian (T-City) Ortega has been waiting for a shot at UFC featherweight champion Max (Blessed) Holloway for months.
"It feels like it's been on my calendar since March 3. And it has been," Ortega said in an interview Wednesday.
The two 145-pounders were originally slated to meet at UFC 226 in July, but Holloway was forced to withdraw at the last minute due to what was thought to be "concussion-like symptoms."
An ankle injury had forced Holloway out of a March bout against former lightweight champion Frankie (The Answer) Edgar at UFC 222 — Ortega filled in for Holloway, winning by first-round TKO.
Holloway also missed out on a short-notice fight with current lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 223 in April (after Tony Ferguson withdrew with a knee injury), pulling out during his weight cut.
Restored to health, Holloway (19-3-0) puts his title on the line Dec. 8 against Ortega (14-0-0 with one no contest) in the main event of UFC 231 at Toronto's Scotiabank Arena.
In the co-main event, former strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk (15-2-0) faces No. 1 contender Valentina (Bullet) Shevchenko (15-3-0) for the vacant women's flyweight title.
Canadians on the card include bantamweight Brad (Superman) Katona, featherweight Hakeem Dawodu, lightweights Olivier (The Canadian Gangster) Aubin-Mercier and John (The Bull) Makdessi, welterweight Chad (The Disciple) Laprise and 13th-ranked middleweight Elias (The Spartan) Theodorou.
Doctors have yet to identify what was ailing Holloway in July but the Hawaiian fighter say they have ruled out links to concussion or weight cut.
"It's great to hear," said Holloway, rocking a vintage Vince Carter Raptors jersey. "But they don't have a smoking gun. We're working very closely with the UFC and some of the specialists that the UFC sent me to to try and figure it out.
"But none of the symptoms ever came back. I feel great. I feel strong. I can't wait to get back in there and fight.
"My home away from home," he said of the Octagon. "I miss it."
The 26-year-old Holloway, who lost three of his first six fights in the UFC, is rising a 12-fight win streak since losing a unanimous decision to Conor McGregor in August 2013.
Holloway, when healthy, has been unstoppable.
He claimed the interim featherweight championship at UFC 206 in Toronto in December 2016 with a third-round TKO of former lightweight title-holder Anthony (Showtime) Pettis, who missed weight. In June 2017, he defeated legendary Brazilian Jose Aldo — who used to boss the featherweight division — to win and unify the 145-pound title at UFC 212. And he battered Aldo again at UFC 218 last December.
No stranger to Canada, Holloway defeated Charles Oliveira in Saskatoon in August 2015.
A fan of Drake as both an entertainer and entrepreneur, Holloway got a shout-out on the Toronto rapper's new album Scorpion.
"Max said they only bless when they attached to you," Drake raps on the song "8 out of 10."
"Insane," Holloway said of the reference.
"I respect him for his music. That's what got me hooked," he added. "But the way he carries himself around and how he's an ambassador for his city — all of Canada, actually — is amazing."
The 27-year-old Ortega, who grew up in a tough Los Angeles neighbourhood, took up kickboxing as a child but went to a gym looking for some self-defence skills after losing a fight at age 13.
Today he is a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (T-City stands for Triangle City) who has gradually added to his fight arsenal and resume. He knocked out Edgar in the first round — becoming the first fighter to stop the former lightweight champion — submitted hard-nosed Cub Swanson and rallied late in the fight to drop veteran Clay Guida with a knee to the head.
Exciting to watch, Ortega has won four performances bonuses in his last three fights.
The lone blemish on his fight card was a positive drug test for the steroid drostanolone in the wake of his UFC debut win over Mike De La Torre in July 2014. The victory was changed to a no contest and Ortega was suspended for nine months and fined US$2,500 by the California Athletic Commission.
Ortega issued a public apology after the failed drug test.
Just 20 when he entered the UFC, Holloway is a stylish striker who controls the distance between him and his opponent. Rarely taken down, he is a high-volume striker who eventually breaks down his opponent in violent fashion.
Holloway is currently ranked No. 4 on the UFC's pound-for-pound rankings, just ahead of Canadian Georges St-Pierre. Daniel Cormier, who holds the heavyweight and light-heavyweight titles, tops the list ahead of Nurmagomedov and bantamweight title-holder T.J. Dillashaw.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press