Those who thought Ryan Bader’s signing with Bellator might fish Tito Ortiz out of retirement shouldn’t hold out hope. The 42-year old Ortiz is scheduled to have his fourth neck surgery on May 12, and three months after his story-book ending against Chael Sonnen he’s now getting his competitive fix through his sons.
Ortiz was in Las Vegas this week for a wrestling tournament that his eight-year old twins and his 14-year son, Jacob, were competing in. And he talks like a man who is enjoying life after fighting. He’s even in the process of repairing old relationships that were compromised through his long career in MMA.
“I’m very thankful to Bellator,” Ortiz told MMA Fighting, an hour before his son’s next match on Friday. “Scott Coker’s been amazing to work with. It’s kind of weird, because after it was all over I got a text from [UFC president] Dana [White] saying congratulations. Me and Dana haven’t really been eye-to-eye for a long time, but recently we’ve been texting back and forth. I don’t know, man. Life’s too short. Too short to hate. I’ve done a few things in my career that I regret towards him. Maybe wearing a tee shirt that says ‘Dana’s My Bitch’ is one of them.”
Ortiz and White have been contentious with each other stretching back over a decade, back to when Ortiz was the light heavyweight champion. These days Ortiz — who is already in the UFC Hall of Fame — says he doesn’t see a need to drag out a grudge, especially when he’s moved on to the next chapter of his life.
Which in his early retirement is an open-ended adventure that includes acting, commentating, philanthropy work and a little poker action. He’s also continuing his work as an ambassador for Bellator, the promotion he ended his career with and still glows about.
“I’ve always just tried to work for the future of my children, and for their future,” Ortiz says. “I wouldn’t have been able to do that if not for Bellator. [Spike president} Kevin Kay’s an amazing guy over there. He gave Scott Coker a job in order to make that company grow. Bellator’s gotten bigger and bigger, and the PR firm is doing an amazing job. The sport’s getting bigger. You can see all the UFC fighters are going over there and signing with Bellator. Is it that the pasture’s greener over there? In my history, yes. I’d have to say absolutely yes.”
In retrospect, it was an unlikely end to a career that looked to be spiraling out of control through the twilight years. After his run as a UFC champion in the early-aughts, Ortiz went on 5-fight winning streak from 2004-2006, including a Fight of the Year against Forrest Griffin. Yet after defeating his rival Ken Shamrock a third time, injuries, age and league parity began to catch up to him.
Ortiz went just 1-7-1 over the next six years in the UFC, with his lone victory coming in shocking fashion over the heavily favored Bader at UFC 132. Even though he closed out his career winning three of four fights under the Bellator banner, that Bader fight looked like a dangling carrot for Ortiz to perhaps rethink his retirement. It certainly would appeal to Bader, who fights Phil Davis for the light heavyweight title on June 24 in New York. The thing is, the one-time “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” knows he can’t have a better ending than the one he had against Sonnen in January at Bellator 170 in Los Angeles.
“It was kind of like watching a great movie, only I lived it,” he said. “It was great. It was the perfect ending. I have no regrets. I am very thankful for everything I was given. Of course, the hard work does pay off, and Bellator gave me a great opportunity to leave the sport as the man I always wanted to be. I couldn’t have asked for anything better, having my son there next to me, to have him lay my gloves in the middle of the cage. It was a story-book ending.”
After his oldest son, Jacob, laid down Ortiz’s gloves in the cage, there was another transition in play. Jacob informed his mom that he wanted to live full-time with his father. Now Ortiz is raising all three of his sons with his girlfriend Amber in Southern California. Ortiz, who had a reputation at one point as MMA’s greatest heel, is now a prototypical family man.
“Being there for my family is great now,” Ortiz says. “But being ‘retired’ only means retired from fighting.
“I’ve been doing other stuff. I just got done shooting a film with Tyler Perry, which is coming out in October. I’ve been playing some poker with Poker Stars. I got a lot going on.”
In the meantime, there’s the residue of a 20-year career to deal with. Ortiz has been plagued with injuries for the last 10 years, and is having what he hopes is one last operation on his neck in the coming weeks.
“I’ve just been waiting on a robot to come in from Germany,” he says. “It finally came in. So May 12 I’ll have my last neck surgery of the four neck surgeries I’ve had after this one. It’s just time. My body just can’t take the damage anymore. I’ve done everything I possibly can do to finish my career the right way. After having my first surgery in 2003, having an ACL replacement, I never thought I’d be able to compete again.”
Ortiz, who is fond of saying the biggest enemy he ever faced has been his own health, has been forced to overcome as many injuries as he has opponents through the course of his career. There’s the lower back injuries, the disc fusions, the ACLs, the detached retina in his left eye…
“For me to walk away with my head still on my shoulders, I’m very, very lucky,” he says. “I’ve had body damage, but almost pretty much no brain damage.”
Still, Ortiz is keeping himself in shape. He weights 230 pounds currently, which is only four pounds up from where he was fight night against Sonnen. You get the sense he would love to continue fighting if he could, but that he’s made peace with the idea that he can’t.
Yet even as he gets adjusted to life outside of fighting, that’s the one name that Ortiz hasn’t gotten out of his head: Sonnen. The “Gangsta from West Linn,” who fights June 24 against his other nemesis Wanderlei Silva.
Ortiz says if he fights again, it’ll be against Sonnen in an unsanctioned bout, taking place wherever he happens to cross him, whatever time of day.
“That guy has not shut his mouth up about me,” he says. “And the next time I see him he better put his hands up, because there’s going to be a fight. “I didn’t think I could dislike anybody more than I did Stephan Bonnar, but I think I just have with Chael Sonnen.”
“You’ve got to win. You see guys like Chael Sonnen who is nothing but mouth. But you’ve got to win, that’s what it’s about. In my career, yeah I had a mouth on me, but I backed it up come fight time.”
The Ortiz of today can’t help but reflect on that youthful Ortiz of then, the one that ruffled so many feathers and crawled under so many people’s skin. Perhaps none so more than his former manager, Dana White, who he says he has buried the hatchet for good.
“Yeah, I’d have to say yes [we did bury the hatchet],” he says. “We briefly spoke, and it seemed like the old Dana. I guess we kind of both said life is too short to hate as much as we have. It’s one of those things man. I’ve learned, why waste my time with hating somebody when I can just forget about it and let life go on? I’ve done that.”