Tito Ortiz knows what's been whispered behind his back.
When the former UFC light heavyweight champion had to pull out of his planned comeback fight against Quinton "Rampage" Jackson last November after suffering a neck injury in training, many -- including this reporter -- said that for the sake of his own health, he should stay retired.
But when you've been a part of this brutal business as long as Ortiz has, learning to deal with criticism is just as much a part of the game as living with bumps and bruises.
"I know some people said I shouldn't come back," Ortiz said in a recent phone interview with MMAFighting.com. "Some of the people who said that are just haters, but some of them are fans of mine who are concerned. Of course I hear that. I know my fans have my back, the rest of them, they're entitled to their opinion."
Still, though, as the 39-year old Ortiz readies himself for his first fight in 22 months, when he meets Alexander Shlemenko on the main card of Bellator's pay-per-view event in the suburbs of Memphis on May 17, he feels compelled to tell people that this wasn't just another case of a broken-down fighter suffering an inevitable fate. The injury, suffered on a takedown at his gym in Huntington Beach, was the sort of thing which could happen at any time.
"It was a freak accident," said Ortiz. "You have to understand, I've had neck fusion surgery done, and I've been fighting with my neck fused, and that never gave way. It's the type of injury that, it's a freak thing, but it happens in this sport sometimes when you're doing takedowns. My fusion never snapped, but this one time I land the wrong way, I get a hairline fracture in a different place. This could have happened when I was 22 or any time. It was a fluke, I was cleared to fight and I'm ready to go."
In January, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney stated on a conference call that he considered Ortiz's condition "unsettling" and that Ortiz could "risk paralysis" with a return. But Ortiz was then given a green-light by his doctor, alleviating Rebney's concerns, and says he's been through is first six-day-a-week training camp in more than a decade.
"Of course I was nervous when the injury happened," Ortiz said. "You can't help but not be. But I'm fully healed and I've had a great camp. I've been training six days a week. I haven't been able to go a full six days a week since 2002. The fight was announced and I just went four hard weeks, six days a week. It wasn't easy but it was gratifying to know I can still do this."
It's the sort of thing, Ortiz believes, that only those who have been to the highest echelon of the sport can appreciate. Asked to describe his emotions as he gets ready for his first fight in two years, the fighter's mind drifted back to his glory days, when he became the first major star of the UFC's Zuffa era.
"People don't understand what fighters at the top have to go through," Ortiz said. "You know what, even half the fighters don't understand what the guys on top are going through. You're being pulled in so many directions. Contract negotiations, business opportunities, people come out of the woodwork, and it all happens when you're so young. I cheated on my first wife Kristin. I thought I was untouchable. How could I be that inconsiderate to someone? When that happens when you're so young, it's easy to get caught up in it."
If the life of an MMA headliner is a hurricane, then the fight itself, paradoxically enough, becomes the eye of the storm.
"It gets to the point where, by the time you're underneath the arena lights and you're staring at your opponent, that's the best time," Ortiz mused. "That's the best feeling in the world, because all the other stuff goes away. You're back to why you started doing this in the first place."
And that's what brings Ortiz full circle. That's why he'll be getting on board a flight to Memphis in a few days to fight someone a decade his junior, critics and haters be damned.
"I knew I had something left to give," Ortiz said. "I knew it was a matter of the right fight coming along, so when I heard Schlemenko call me out, it was like, okay, bring it. Shlemenko wants to make his name off of Tito Ortiz. He's not the first person ever to do this. People have been trying to use my name ever since I was the champ."
All of a sudden, you can hear the fire coming back, "Huntington Beach Bad Boy" style. The weariness is gone from Ortiz's voice and all of a sudden, if you close your eyes, it may as well be 2002 once again.
"You know what? I still want to fight Rampage," Ortiz said. "But that's for later. Right now all I'm thinking his Shlemenko. I'm eating Shlemenko, I'm sleeping Shlemenko, I'm s----ing Shlemenko. I promise the fans who tune in on May 17 that I'm going to give them everything I have."