"A lot of athletes are not supposed to compete after the surgeries that I
had, but I still came back to compete and I’ve showed what heart and
dedication are all about." - Tito Ortiz
Tito Ortiz can see the finish line. After nearly 15 years as a professional, the man once dubbed “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” has dropped that moniker, took on a new one, “The People’s Champ,” and he’s preparing for a final run – not for a title, not for accolades, but for himself.
“The finish line’s there for me,” said the former UFC light heavyweight champion, who will step into the Octagon for a record 26th time on Saturday night to face Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 140 in Toronto. “I’ve done everything underneath the sun in MMA, and it’s time for me to change this chapter of my life. I’ve got this fight and I got one more after it to finish my contract out. I’ve been competing for 15 years and that’s been my goal – to compete as a UFC fighter for 15 years. I’ve been here when the UFC was not accepted and I worked so hard to help UFC get accepted by the public and I think I did a great job trying to do that. My career is there. I’ve done everything. I’m the longest competing UFC fighter, I have the most (light heavyweight) title defenses, and I’ve done a lot. So I don’t want to overstay my welcome. I haven’t gotten hurt seriously in the Octagon, I’ve never been knocked out unconscious, and I’d like to have my head on my shoulders.”
If 2011 has proved anything though, the 36-year old is not attempting to go out quietly with a whimper. He’s going to go out guns blazing in a quest to be one of the few prizefighters to leave on top. And considering that he’s finally been healthy this year after two serious surgeries on his lower back and neck, he’s got the potential to do so.
It’s not the happy ending many envisioned for Ortiz entering the year. Winless in five bouts (0-4-1) since 2006, Ortiz was under no illusions when he was matched with Ryan Bader at UFC 132 in July. And if he was, UFC President Dana White crystallized things for him when he said that if Ortiz lost to Bader, his career in the organization was over. But like all great fighters, the Californian showed that he still had one great fight left, and his 1:56 submission of Bader was an emotional victory and perhaps the feel good story of the year.
It could have been one that Ortiz would choose to sit on for a bit, to bask in his regained glory. But a month later, he was back at it, coming in on short notice to rescue the UFC 133 main event against Rashad Evans, and almost pulling off the upset when he caught his rival in a guillotine choke before getting stopped in the second round. But Ortiz has no regrets, at least not about taking the rematch with Evans. If anything, his only regrets come from issues long in his past.
“I actually had two huge regrets,” he said. “My biggest regret was that I wish my parents were never drug addicts and my other regret was that I wish I never turned my back on Dana (White) and (UFC Chairman and CEO) Lorenzo (Fertitta). I feel bad for doing that.”
Ortiz’ battles with the UFC brass took on a life of its own a few years back, and now he is eager to put all that in the past. But as far as his parents and his upbringing go, he realizes that if he didn’t go through such experiences, he wouldn’t have become the fighter he is today.
“My whole life I was always in survival mode,” he admits. “I was trying to survive and I could never trust anybody. I couldn’t trust my mother or my father, I couldn’t trust any of my family around me. I never had anybody to look up to besides people like Muhammad Ali or Hulk Hogan. I never had a father figure, and I never had any type of family at all. All I knew was how to survive. And throughout my fight career I’ve always been like that.”
That fight to survive led him to the top of the UFC’s light heavyweight division, where no one successfully defended the crown as many times as he did. But more than that, Ortiz was the face of the UFC in the early-Zuffa days, the “Bad Boy” who could get attention from fans like no other, whether positive or negative. Now though, the only fights are in the Octagon because he’s made it. No longer a wild kid, Ortiz now has three kids of his own, and he’s grown up.
“I’m very satisfied,” he said. “It’s a comfortable and confident place I’m in right now. It’s time to kinda reinvent myself and just take my life in a positive manner. I’m very thankful that my surgeries went as well as they did and God has blessed me, and I want to end my career on a positive note. I want to show people what hard work and dedication can get you. A lot of athletes are not supposed to compete after the surgeries that I had, but I still came back to compete and I’ve showed what heart and dedication are all about.”
Notice that he doesn’t talk about the ferocious ground and pound or endless cardio that marked his prime years. For him, those were just byproducts of going to the gym every day and outworking everyone. And when the bell rang, you may get the best of him here or there, but you would never break his spirit. That’s the real legacy he wants to leave.
“I have a huge heart,” said Ortiz. “I’m a fighter that has been battling for almost 15 years in the Octagon. I’m a fighter. I became a smart businessman as I grew older and I realized that I can’t fight for the rest of my life, but as a young kid, I fought through life to get to where I am today. There were three places I could be – I could be in prison, I could be dead, or I could be where I am right now. And I think it’s the determination and heart that I have that got me to where I am today.”
“I listen to a lot of music, I watch a lot of movies, and I look for messages in the premise of the movie and the music and why a person goes through these things,” Ortiz continues. “A lot of music Eminem has, I try to listen to the message he has, and the message that I’m trying to give to people is that with heart and determination and hard work, you can become anything. God has challenged every person one way or another in this lifetime, and there are people who succeed and people who fail. And the ones who succeed are the ones who are able to get through those things, and that’s what I do every time I come into the gym – I try to get through day by day, week by week, month by month, and with the surgeries I’ve gone through and the stuff I’ve gone through in my personal life, I don’t think I was ever supposed to succeed.”
He did though, and no matter what happens on Saturday or beyond, nothing can ever change that. But like Ortiz said himself, he is a fighter, and we all know how fighters and retirement work out. So what happens if he blows through Nogueira and wins the final fight on his contract? Will he consider sticking around?
“Right now, two and I’m done, but you never know what Lorenzo and Dana come at me with,” he laughs. “But I have to make sure it makes sense for me and my family. I want to see my boys grow up and I want them to have a father. I want to make sure I’m able to throw a football with my kids, go for a run, or just wrestle with them. And I’ve got to look out for my future.”
So what will he miss the most?
“I think I’ll miss the competition the most and competing against the best guys in the world,” said Ortiz. “I’m still young, I’m just going to be turning 37, but I don’t want to overstay my welcome and I don’t want to torture my body.”
And like any fighter, he wants to leave on top. There’s no better final statement.