Brian Ortega, left, and Yair Rodriguez will headline UFC Long...

Brian Ortega, left, and Yair Rodriguez will headline UFC Long Island at UBS Arena on July 16, 2022. Credit: Getty Images

If Brian Ortega and Yair Rodriguez had their way, the UFC stars would have long, accomplished careers without ever obstructing each other’s paths.

Both knew better than to expect that outcome.

The Southern California-based featherweights will put a casual friendship aside when they face off in a five-round main event at UFC Long Island on July 16 at UBS Arena, the Belmont Park facility’s first major mixed martial arts event since opening last November.

“This fight makes me happy because I’m fighting the No. 2-ranked fighter in the world, not because I’m fighting Brian Ortega,” Rodriguez told Newsday.

Ortega (15-2, 1 NC) and Rodriguez (13-3, 1 NC) said they’ve always been congenial at the random industry event or mutual acquaintance’s get-together. As the years went by and both increased their stature in the UFC, the potential for an in-cage meeting grew and, eventually, Ortega brought up the 145-pound gorilla in the room.

“We talked about it, we want to be cool with each other, but we’re also in the same weight class,” Ortega said. “So I just got him to the side and said, ‘listen, bro, truth is we might fight each other one day, and I just hope you know that if and when that day comes, it’s only business and I hope that you’re getting paid and I’m getting paid, and no matter what — win, lose or draw — we’re still good.’”

Rodriguez was on the same page.

“We decided we didn’t want to fight each other until it was the case that we had to fight each other, and now is the time,” Rodriguez said.

And not a moment too soon. Circumstances at featherweight could put this matchup’s winner in line for a title shot. Ortega ranks No. 2 in the division after falling to champion Alexander Volkanovski, while Rodriguez is one spot behind his opponent following a loss to No. 1 contender Max Holloway.

Volkanovski and Holloway will have their trilogy fight — Volkanovski won their first two meetings — at UFC 276 this Saturday. That's just two weeks before Ortega and Rodriguez make their ring walks, and the next step for the division remains unclear.

“We’re playing this game where we’re all pushing each other off the mountain and trying to see who’s the next one to sit on top and get crowned with gold,” said Ortega, whose only two career losses came in UFC championship bouts.

“We’ll see what happens. I haven’t had anybody tell me it is a title eliminator. Honestly, at the end of the day, it feels like what it is: it’s Nos. 2 and 3 going at it to try to go back up the ladder. He got dropped down a notch his last fight, I got dropped down a notch my last fight, now both of those guys are fighting for the world title.”

Rodriguez said he doesn’t like to think much about what a win would mean for his title hopes, instead keeping his mind on the upcoming fight he hoped wouldn’t need to happen. Aiming at a friendly face won’t be difficult, the 29-year-old said, thanks to his experience winning the UFC reality show “The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America” in 2014.

“In the ‘Ultimate Fighter’ house I had these relationships with my opponents, they were my friends, and after the fight, nothing happened,” Rodriguez said. “Whatever had to happen happened and we became even more friends after that. This is just sport for me, nothing more than that.”

Ortega, 31, would prefer he not be so fond of the guy across the cage.

“If he doesn’t like me, it makes it better, you know? It’s like [expletive] you too, I’ll punch your [expletive] face in. You don’t like me? Cool, we get to fight,” Ortega said. “So it does kind of stink when you do know someone, it’s like, ‘you’re cool, I don’t want to have to hit you, but I’m going to have to.’”

Still, Rodriguez is confident Ortega will find a way to power through any feelings of pleasantry on July 16.

“I’m sure he’s gonna try to take my head off fight night, and I’m going to do my best as well,” Rodriguez said. “So, nothing personal against him, this is work and I’m sure we’re going to have a lot of fun.”

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