It’s been more than a decade since Tito Ortiz was a champion. But on Saturday, the first American superstar of the modern MMA era has a chance to once again hold a legitimate title, 18 years after his journey began.
Ortiz turns 41 in January and his competitive lifespan is nearing its end. The UFC Hall of Famer and former 205-pound champion wants to go out on a high note, and he has the opportunity to do it at Bellator 142, where he’ll challenge the promotion’s undefeated Light Heavyweight titlist, Liam McGeary. But this is more than merely a championship bout – it might very well be Ortiz’s final shot at redemption, a chance to vindicate himself after exiting UFC on an ugly string of losses, undergoing multiple surgeries and becoming a tabloid trope.
Since his 1997 debut, Ortiz has been one of the sport’s central stars and is easily one of MMA’s foremost personalities. However, that “personality” is a mixture of triumphant highs inside the cage and embarrassing lows outside of it. Frequent malapropisms on the microphone have made him a ripe target for snark and satire among hardcore fans, but he remains one of the sport’s most visible athletes. More importantly, Ortiz feels a renewed confidence that has nothing to do with fighting at all.
“The things I’ve been through, I shouldn’t be where I am,” he says. “I’m defying the odds and the reason I wanted this title fight was to prove to myself that I’m able to compete. I came through hell over the last 18 years but I’m still surviving and I’m still fighting. I’m fighting for a world title and I’ll win a world title on September 19.”
For more than a decade, Ortiz held the mark as the longest reigning champion in UFC history. He won the Light Heavyweight title, then at 200 pounds, in April 2000 and held it for 1,260 days before he was finally dethroned.
Ortiz’s skills and brash personality made him the perfect bad guy, and his rivalries with Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell turned those two into legitimate stars and legends. His first meeting with Ken Shamrock at UFC 40 in November 2002 was the first major financial success of any kind for the UFC under the ownership of parent company Zuffa. Simply put, Ortiz was instrumental in helping drag MMA out of the dark ages and into the mainstream.
For better or worse, Ortiz’s most famous UFC rivalry was not with a fighter, but his former manager turned UFC President, Dana White. Their mutual contempt was an ongoing storyline throughout the majority of Ortiz’s 15-year UFC tenure, a relationship so acrimonious that, at one point, it almost culminated in a televised boxing match. Yet despite the tension, Ortiz remained with the UFC until his final bout in July 2012, where he lost a unanimous decision to Forrest Griffin before announcing his retirement.
That retirement lasted a little more than a year before Ortiz signed on with UFC’s primary competitor, Bellator MMA. Although his UFC relationship is over, Ortiz says there’s still bitterness over how his historical contributions to the company are handled.
“I left UFC with a bad taste in my mouth, so I had to take a step away and focus on my family,” he says. “What the UFC has done in trying to erase me from history is embarrassing. But my fans and my kids know I was one of the greatest UFC fighters to ever grace the Octagon.
“So many lies were told and a bad picture was painted of me…Viacom and Spike TV and Bellator are showing the person I really am. I’m very thankful for it,” he continues. “There are no lies and no propaganda against me. I’ve done so much just to sell tickets, to get the sport where it is and I ended up with a company that burned me. Now I’m with a company that respects me for the business I’ve done and the athlete I am.”
Ortiz ended his UFC career 2-7-1 over his final 10 fights. Those two victories came nearly five years apart. However, he remained a top box-office draw, and even the without wins, Ortiz’s committed fanbase stood by him. Now, he’s out to prove their support was warranted. He says his late-career swoon was the result of a litany of injuries, and that he’s fully recovered from surgeries to his back, neck and knee.
“Mentally I’m in the best place I’ve ever been; physically I feel great, and at the age of 40 I feel better than when I was 30,” Ortiz says. “I’ve gone through some major surgeries that most athletes – pro or amateur – don’t come back from to compete at the level I have.”
But his stresses weren’t strictly physical. The mental and emotional toll of his life has added up quickly in recent years. Ortiz has three children; the first, Jacob, with his ex-wife Kristin and twins, Jesse and Journey, with former adult film star Jenna Jameson.
The much-publicized relationship with Jameson started in 2006; Ortiz says he had no idea the pain it would introduce into his life. Ortiz was suddenly TMZ fodder, dogged by accusations of drug use and domestic violence, threats of legal action, the leaking of private security footage, custody battles and more. Having grown up in a broken household with parents who used drugs, Ortiz eventually recognized and became wary of Jameson’s behavior.
Ortiz says Jameson abused prescription drugs during her pregnancy and continued after giving birth (Jameson has denied those allegations). He says his personal tipping point came in March 2013, when Jameson disappeared to Las Vegas for several weeks with no explanation. Ortiz obtained a restraining order against Jameson and eventually received full custody of their twins.
“That’s what I lived with every single day for seven years,” Ortiz says. “Splitting up with Jenna Jameson saved my kids’ lives. She hasn’t been around in over two and a half years and my kids are very, very happy. At the end of the day, karma comes around and bites people in the ass. The truth usually plays out no matter what. You can’t deny the truth.”
Ortiz is now dating former UFC ring girl Amber Nichole Miller, whom he says has embraced his children and provided a calming presence in his own life. She’s also helped him focus on his return to the ring, a focus that has already paid dividends. He earned back-to-back victories to start his Bellator career, upsetting then-Bellator champion Alexander Shlemenko and earning a decision over fellow UFC veteran Stephan Bonnar. Now, Ortiz’s first two-fight winning streak since 2006 – or perhaps that lasting star power – has earned him a championship fight.
But while Ortiz continued to work on rebuilding his MMA career in Bellator and his home life with Miller, one mistake threatened all of it.
On January 6, 2014, Ortiz was arrested on suspicion of DUI after he crashed his Porsche Panamera into the median of the I-405 freeway in Los Angeles. Two passengers were in the car, but no one was hurt. A preliminary alcohol screening showed Ortiz had a blood alcohol level of .12, over the legal limit of .08. After pleading no-contest to the DUI charge, Ortiz was sentenced to 36 months probation, fines and ordered to undergo alcohol education.
“I truly made a huge mistake,” he says. “I was very embarrassed because of that. It’s a year and a half later but still I take it to heart, because it affects my children, it affects my name and it’s embarrassing. It’s something that will never happen to me again.”
The DUI doesn’t trouble Ortiz because of pride, ego or concerns about his image, he says. Instead, it made him check himself as an athlete, and more importantly, a father. With Jameson out of the picture, Ortiz realized that his young twins would be left without a parent if the DUI incident had resulted in jail time, or even worse, a fatality.
“I almost lost myself for a second and had to look in the mirror and be honest; I had to think about my children,” Ortiz says. “Something serious could have happened to my friends who were in the car. I needed a reality check. If I die, who are my kids going to have? They’re going to have nobody. They’ll go to social services and I wasn’t going to let that happen. I took responsibility for my actions and I’ll never do it again.”
At the start of his career in 1997, Ortiz was still a wrestler at Golden West College, and had only himself to support. In fact, he refused payment for his early bouts in order to retain his status as an amateur collegiate athlete. Nearly two decades later, things have changed, but Ortiz claims his financial responsibilities only motivate him even more; after all, he’s no longer just fighting for himself.
“When I was UFC champion I had zero overhead and no responsibilities or kids. I was a boy – I’m a man now,” Ortiz says. “I’m more motivated now than I was when I was younger. I have so many people that believe in me. I have three boys and I take care of my mother at her home. I have to pay for school, put food on the table and clothes on their backs. I have to make sure the lights are on. I’ve got to prevail and defy the odds. I’m working even harder now than when I was trying to win my first world title.”
And he’ll definitely have to work. The last time Ortiz competed in a five-round championship bout was at UFC 66 in December 2006. In a fight that drew over 1 million pay-per-view buys, Ortiz was knocked out for a second time by rival Chuck Liddell. If Ortiz wants to achieve his goal of winning the Bellator title, he’ll be required to beat McGeary, who has yet to taste defeat. The 6-foot-6 Englishman is eight years younger and, for the most part, has blown through his competition en route to the Bellator title. He’ll have the chance to build his own career at Ortiz’s expense.
Bellator MMA President Scott Coker says Ortiz’s willingness to challenge a dangerous champion shows the passion still possessed by one of the sport’s trailblazers.
“He still has the desire to compete at the highest level,” Coker says. “He wanted to fight for the title. As a competitor, I think he needs this to wake up every day and train his ass off and prepare for a big moment in his life. Certain people get motivated by certain things and Tito needed to set the bar extremely high and fight a guy like Liam, who is extremely dangerous, to keep that fire in him.”
Ortiz is a decided underdog according to most sportsbooks. Naturally, he says it motivates him. On Saturday night, he’ll fight for much more than just a title; he’ll fight to prove the naysayers wrong, to add another chapter to his improbable comeback story and – perhaps most importantly – to show that Father Time hasn’t caught up to the Huntington Beach Bad Boy just yet.
“With UFC, I was the poster boy and I was the first Light Heavyweight Champion and defended it five consecutive times. It was a dream back then. All of a sudden, 15 years later I’m doing it again and it feels like a dream again,” Ortiz says. “Winning this world title was meant to be. I’ve been tested in my life, over and over again, and I look back on it and think being a world champion again will be the end of my movie – a happy ending. That’s my goal.”