Tito Ortiz assumed that the worst part was over. Following spinal fusion surgery in October of 2008, the longest reigning light heavyweight champion in UFC history was finally given a clean bill of health and cleared to make another run at the title he so coveted.
And while he would lose his first fight back in the Octagon to Forrest Griffin in November of 2009, the razor-thin split decision defeat did show glimpses of a rejuvenated fighter who could make some noise at 205 pounds again should he keep an active schedule. And he agreed.
“I had a lot of points where I thought I had it all back,” said Ortiz of the Griffin fight, which evened the score between the two at 1-1. “I remember thinking in the third round that I had the first two rounds won and thinking ‘don’t get knocked down, don’t get taken down, and you’ve got the fight won.’ I watched the fight around 15 times, and I don’t know what the judges were thinking. I thought I won, I thought it was a great comeback, and I showed a lot of heart and determination. I had a fractured orbital bone and a ruptured disc in my neck, and I was still able to compete and show what type of heart I have.”
The next step for Ortiz was a big one, a return stint as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter. This time, we would be pitted against former friend and longtime rival Chuck Liddell, with the two UFC superstars meeting in a third bout in Vancouver at UFC 115 in June. But it was not meant to be, as everything Ortiz thought was over reared its ugly head again.
“I thought I was done (with the injuries), but when you wake up and have numb arms, numb legs, and you have headaches every single day, you know something’s wrong,” he said. “The doctor did an MRI and he said that I had a ruptured disc that was pressing on my spinal cord and that’s why I was having the problems that I had.”
Ortiz was pulled from TUF11, pulled from the Liddell fight and sent back under the surgeon’s knife. The C6 and C7 vertebrae were fused, and not surprisingly, when the surgery was done, his first question was whether he could fight again.
Affirmative. But now the hard work was beginning again, even though the second surgery was described to him as 50-60% easier than the one performed on his back. Still, it’s been a long couple of years for “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy,” but ones that he’s put in the back of his mind as he moves forward.
“It’s been a rebuilding process for me the last two years,” he said. “Coming off two major surgeries, it was a very scary point in my life and my career, and now that I’m healed, the sky’s the limit now. I’m able to train and wrestle and do all the things that I couldn’t do before. When you’re only putting in three days a week due to injuries, it’s hard to do. But now I’m able to put in five, six days a week of training. I still have a lot of work to do rebuilding, but I’ve still got five fights left on my contract and in each one I’ll get better and better. After the surgeries I’ve gotten done, some athletes never compete after that; and I’m here to prove a lot of people wrong and prove that you’re able to do things like this after surgery as long as you keep your nose to the grindstone and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
That’s the physical part. As for the mental part of it, what could possibly encourage a man to sacrifice so much for the sake of sport. Sure, the money’s nice and so is the fame, but Ortiz has both, and his legacy as one of the game’s great light heavyweights is secure. So what’s the hook?
“I love the sport,” he answers without hesitation. “And I love everything I’ve been given to this point from my fans, from Lorenzo Fertitta, Frank Fertitta, and Dana White. Over the last five years we’ve had our battles back and forth, but in the long run, I was here at the very beginning, I was here when there was nobody else. They put everything on my shoulders to help carry this company, and I did my part. And I see now that we’re mainstream; we’re what I’ve always dreamed this sport to be. But I just think I have so much more fight in my heart, being 35 years old, and I think I have a lot more competition left in me. Being at a hundred percent and able to compete at this level is something that I know I can do.”
It’s an uphill climb, and he knows it, but that’s true of anything worth having, and this Saturday night in Anaheim, we’ll see just what Ortiz has left in the tank when he takes on his former student from the third season of The Ultimate Fighter, Matt Hamill. And while the fight is obviously important, facing off against someone who he mentored is a challenge in and of itself.
“Business is business,” said Ortiz. “Matt Hamill took the fight and I said ‘cool, game on.’ But it’s strictly business. My main goal is to get my world title back. If I’ve got to fight someone who’s 4-0, let it be. It don’t matter to me. I just want to compete and I want to give the fans the best fights I possibly can do.”
The bout against Hamill brings to mind the last time Ortiz was in this situation, when he faced Liddell for the first time in 2004. While the acrimony between the two is evident now, back then, Ortiz was reluctant to face his buddy in the Octagon.
“Chuck was the only situation like that, and I learned from their mistakes,” he said. “I saw what people’s true colors are, and at the end of the day, all fighters want to get paid, all fighters want to excel and be the best, and at any cost they’re willing to do it. I guess I’ve got to think the same way. I’m a very emotional guy, very friendship based, but business is business, and I’m willing to take it to that.”
Ortiz knows that Hamill will be a formidable challenge, as he noticed his raw talent more than four years ago, when he made “The Hammer” his first pick on TUF3. Yet despite Hamill’s continued development as a fighter in the years since 2006, Ortiz still sees some flaws in his game.
“Matt’s a quick learner, he’s a great wrestler, and all UFC fighters that have a great wrestling base do very, very well,” said Ortiz. “And I think that the more he learns and the better guys he trains with, the better he’ll get, and he’s proved that time and time again. But he still makes the same mistakes, and I don’t think a lot of guys have capitalized on that yet, and I’ll be that first guy.”
If Ortiz seems to be a little more subdued in fight promotion mode this time around, it may be because he’s fighting Hamill, because it’s his first fight back after surgery, or because a loss will put him at 0-4-1 since his last win over Ken Shamrock in 2006. Maybe it’s all three, but whatever it is, Ortiz has survived the “emotional rollercoaster” of the last few years, has made it through relatively unscathed, and come fight night, he will be ready to perform when the bell rings.
“I think there’s going to be energy like there’s never been before,” said Ortiz when asked about Saturday night at the Honda Center. “From when I walk out to when I leave, I’m gonna be back. I’ve really worked hard, I’ve put my time in, I put my three solid months in, and I’m excited. It’s gonna be a very, very tough fight, and I’m gonna give it my all, no matter what.”