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Porn, Pain and Donald Trump: The Rebirth of Mixed Martial Arts Legend Tito Ortiz

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterJanuary 21, 2017

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 7:   Tito Ortiz enters the Octagon before his light heavyweight bout against Forrest Griffin at UFC 148 inside MGM Grand Garden Arena on July 7, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Former UFC light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz can remember the day his life changed. March 21, 2013, was remarkable for many reasons, but mostly because he didn't sit alone in his bed and cry.

That had become more common than he'd like to recall as a litany of tragedies dotted the ruined map of his supposedly perfect life. Days on tour with his favorite bands Limp Bizkit and Korn were long gone, replaced by a collection of injuries, indignities and calamities that might have been comical had they not hurt so damn much.

The 41-year-old Hall of Famer, who will fight Chael Sonnen on Saturday night at Bellator 170 on Spike TV, had added a neck surgery to his long list of ailments a few months earlier, ending his UFC career. The mother of his twin boys, celebrity porn star Jenna Jameson, had left for a party in Las Vegas and hadn't come back in over a week.

"My relationship and my body gave out. It was the hardest time of my life," Ortiz told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "... I realized she was bringing me down. She was draining me. Jenna was mentally f--king me. Telling me, 'You're a piece of s--t. You're a piece-of-s--t dad. You're just like your father.' Just ripping me down, tearing me down. Eventually I realized enough is enough."

On the worst days, he cried. On the best, he looked to a higher power.

"This is all a test from God," he told himself. "To see what kind of person I really am and what kind of character I possess."

His career, the one that had pulled him from the wreckage of poverty and less organized violence and made him rich, was all but over. Red overwhelmed his MMA record—and red isn't good.

Pain was the one constant in his life—both the kind that made him "pop Vicodins like candy" and the kind that had him scurrying to his phone to continue domestic arguments when he was supposed to be training. Fighting, his one reprieve from the whirlwind drama of his TMZ life, was suddenly no longer a safe space.

The proud pioneer was reduced by many to a human meme—a man who butchered names in his ill-fated foray into announcing and made excuses for the poor performances in the Octagon that seemed to have supplanted the good ones on a permanent basis.

Ortiz with Jameson.
Ortiz with Jameson.Donald Miralle/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

"Being in a tumultuous, turbulent relationship will break anyone down," said Ortiz's longtime girlfriend, Amber Nichole Miller. "You're human. It was oil and vinegar with Jenna. I don't think he knew what a real relationship was. He was so used to chaos that chaos had become normal. Tito was in such a dark place, and he didn't know how to accept real love.

"We had been friends over the years. UFC was very small back when I was a ring girl and he was champion. And the man I knew was so sweet and so kind. The man he'd become in that relationship was the polar opposite. He was very guarded and not whole. I could tell by the way he carried himself. He wasn't available the way he used to be.

"I reached out to him, and he admitted, 'I'm not doing OK. This is really hard.' He went from 'Yeah, let's party' to raising two kids. He had to be present 24 hours a day and figure it out."

It was easy for Ortiz to sit there, an overwhelmed single father, and bitterly ponder the past and fear the future. The fight industry has torn many lives asunder, and giving into despair required no action at all. The downward spiral welcomed his descent with open arms.

Instead, on that fateful day in 2013, Ortiz got up, got a restraining order against Jameson and got on with living his life.

"I saw a wounded bird and tried to help her," Ortiz said. "But she was one person I couldn't fix. I met a wonderful, beautiful human being, but drugs got to her. Her mind is really dark. Really, really dark. I wish she would get help and do what the court says so she can see our kids. They are seven now, going to be eight. And she hasn't seen them since they were three.

"It's sad; it's really sad. But I had to make that decision for my kids, because there were drugs and a lot of things they shouldn't have been around. My mother made the same decision for me when I was 13 years old. I could have either been in jail or dead. But I'm where I am right now. And I'm very thankful to my mother for that. She's been sober for over 24 years. She made a difference—and I wanted to make the same decision for my kids."

Ortiz, Miller and his twins.
Ortiz, Miller and his twins.Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

For the first time in years, light shined into Ortiz's life. It didn't happen immediately. Replacing chaos with order never does. But slowly and surely, the old Tito emerged from his protective shell. As his life mended, so did his body. And, if you know anything about old fighters, you can guess what happened next.

"I told Amber, 'I think I want to fight. I'm only 38 years old and I still have it,'" Ortiz said. "'My body's in good shape. I'm in good shape. Let's give this a try.'"


That decision, made three years ago, led Ortiz to this moment, a final fight against Sonnen, a fellow loudmouth who himself stood on the foundation Tito built and raised the fine art of trash-talking to new heights. But it started with a VHS tape and a familiar face.

In high school, Ortiz had wiped the mat with a wrestler named Jerry Bohlander. So, imagine his surprise when, as a junior college standout, he saw his former opponent on television laying waste to overmatched opponents in the UFC Octagon.

Ortiz had already spent some time training with the UFC's original bad boy, Tank Abbott, in 1996. Though he never put on gloves or took a punch, the sessions gave him some understanding of what the sport was about.

"Tank defending a shot from me was almost like getting in a fight with him," Ortiz said with a laugh. "You learn to be tough real quick."

Training with Abbott didn't give Ortiz much hope for a future in the fight game. Abbott was too big and too strong for smaller men to contend with. But Bohlander? If Bohlander could thrive, Ortiz knew he could too. The UFC's decision to divide its athletes into weight classes solidified his commitment. He was going to give cage fighting a chance.

Despite an early loss to Bohlander's teammate Guy Mezger at UFC 13, Ortiz's potential was obvious. He was big, strong and mean on the mat. More than that, he had that something you couldn't quite put a finger on. In a sport filled with self-effacing men looking to show their respect to each other and the arts, Ortiz brought a much-needed showman's flair.

Ortiz partly modeled his persona on Hogan.
Ortiz partly modeled his persona on Hogan.Michael Dodge/AFL Media/Getty Images

"Bleached hair, flames on the shorts. I was the bad boy," he said. "I tried to split the difference between Muhammad Ali and Hulk Hogan. I came around at the same time as "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, and we both feuded with our boss. I brought pro wrestling to fighting."

Though his attempts seem quaint now, in a world where fighters star in nationwide commercials and appear on late-night television, Ortiz was the first to really market himself. He printed his own baseball cards to autograph for fans and worked hard to craft his image.

And then there were the T-shirts.

Long before Reebokian ubiquity reigned, Ortiz donned a shirt with a lewd or funny phrase after each win. They were products of their time—he readily acknowledges he couldn't get away with "I Just F--ked Your Ass" or "Gay Mezger Is My Bitch" today and wouldn't want to. But in the late 1990s, not only did fans eat it up, but it also created the sponsorship market that became an important source of income for many UFC fighters for years.

"I worked at a porno novelty store called Spankys and got a call from a production company named Extreme Associates," Ortiz said. "They told me they'd give me $5,000 to wear their shirt after the fight. S--t, $5,000? I was only getting paid seven grand to fight. Of course I said yes."

Frank Shamrock's retirement in 1999 left a space open at the top of the sport—one Ortiz was happy to fill. He beat the fearsome Wanderlei Silva to become the UFC's light heavyweight champion and ruled the division for three years. By the time his manager, Dana White, convinced childhood friend Lorenzo Fertitta to buy the promotion in 2001, Ortiz had become the UFC's marquee star.

"This was family," Miller said. "When I started in 2001, we all knew each other. We all knew each other's families. We traveled together. We ate together. Because it was so small.

"They were partners and friends. Chuck Liddell slept on Tito's couch, and Dana would come over and hang out. They would talk about how they were going to make it bigger. It was a friend situation. Tito is an emotional guy, and he takes friendship and bonds that he has with people very seriously. But money kind of breaks up friendships, unfortunately."

Ortiz's 2002 fight with Ken Shamrock set records for White's UFC.
Ortiz's 2002 fight with Ken Shamrock set records for White's UFC.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

As the UFC grew into a $4 billion business, Ortiz's bank account didn't expand at a corresponding rate. And, while other fighters were happy to do what they loved, Ortiz knew that because time in the spotlight was short, big paydays were paramount.

"They were selling all these pay-per-views, and I was making 0.05 percent. It didn't make sense to me," he said. "Boxers were making 40 percent of the pay-per-view, and I was lucky to get a few dollars. I didn't understand that. That's what hurt my career with UFC. I remember talking to Dana about the numbers Mike Tyson was doing. He was making $30 million to fight, and I said, 'Dana, how come I ain't making that kind of money?' He said, 'Tito, when you become champion and draw those kind of numbers, you'll make that money.'

"But it didn't happen. We were doing a million pay-per-view buys when I fought Chuck Liddell. I wasn't making no $30 million. I wasn't making no $10 million. I wasn't even making $5 million. I was getting held down, and that's when I started speaking up. And the more I spoke up, the more I got pushed down."

The resulting battle was one of the fiercest in UFC history.

"He was painted as a pain in the ass, someone who is hard to work with," Miller said. "Because he stood up for himself and wasn't just a yes-man, happy to be Dana's best buddy and accepting whatever they handed him. That's not how it works. Tito, Randy [Couture], Chuck, they were building the UFC together with Zuffa. The reason the company became huge was because you had characters like Tito making it exciting."

White and Liddell had a close relationship.
White and Liddell had a close relationship.Eric Jamison/Associated Press/Associated Press

Ortiz, the reigning UFC champion, became his own promoter's target in the press. Fights over money were recast and presented to the public as Ortiz being scared to compete. Liddell, Ortiz's former friend and training partner, was White's preferred champion—and he made no effort to hide it.

"I was being called a p--sy by Dana. I was afraid to fight Chuck. I was the worst champion they'd ever had. And all these people bought into this s--t because Dana was on television saying it all the time," Ortiz said. "All I could do was fight. I couldn't compete with him because he put himself on television every time he possibly could. His voice was a lot louder than mine.

"It made me scratch my head. I was his top star, but he was out to ruin me. They wanted to make Chuck their champion because Chuck wasn't saying no to them. Chuck wasn't saying no to fighting for $150 grand. All he wanted to do was fight for the belt. Well, I have six of them in my trophy case. But my bank account was the No. 1 thing I concentrated on."

Holdouts became a regular part of doing business, and an appearance on Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice made Ortiz more confident than ever that he was doing things the right way. Ortiz spent weeks picking Trump's brain and left convinced that his personal brand was the most valuable thing he owned.

The Trumps were in attendance for Ortiz's fight with Machida in 2008.
The Trumps were in attendance for Ortiz's fight with Machida in 2008.Eric Jamison/Associated Press

"I spent the entire time asking him questions," Ortiz said. "I asked him how he became a billionaire, and he said, 'Tito, you never stop working. From the moment I get up to the moment I go to bed at night, I work. And when I sleep, which isn't that much, I have people working for me.' He told me that if I wanted to make it big, I had to treat my name like it was a business."


While White rocked Ortiz's world emotionally, and Couture and Liddell did so in the cage, his body was the real culprit in his athletic decline. He's had eight major surgeries, including fusions on his back and neck, and has suffered, by his count, at least 26 concussions.

"I pushed myself way too hard and tore my body apart," Ortiz said. "I did all these things because I didn't want to let Dana and Lorenzo down. I didn't want to let the fans down. I went in there injured at least 90 percent of the time. Sometimes seriously injured."

It's a battle he's fought since 2003, when he first hurt his back while shooting a double-leg takedown in preparation for a title fight against Couture. Pain shot through him that day, and he called White to tell him he might not be able to fight.

That's when he was introduced to methylprednisolone, an anti-inflammatory steroid that masked the pain. He made it to the fight with Couture but lost his first bout in four years and was no longer UFC champion.

"I thought my world was over," he said.

But instead of rest and recovery, Ortiz responded the only way he knew how: by hitting the gym and putting in work. Pharmaceuticals became a regular part of his life. Problems weren't treated—they were hidden. But when it came time to pay the piper, the price was high.

After a bout against Lyoto Machida, the last on his UFC contract, not even pills could hide Ortiz's discomfort. Time off changed little. Eventually, after watching the technique performed on a cadaver, he had surgery on his back, one he had to pay for himself because he was no longer employed by the UFC.

"It's very rough on your body, and many of the promoters don't cover surgeries for the wear and tear that breaks you down over the years," Miller said. "It's super scary that these guys don't have full medical coverage. And they are afraid to ask, because if they rock the boat, they can be out of a job."

Ortiz returned to the UFC in 2009, but his bad luck didn't change. He drove his own head into the mat while training for a bout against Forrest Griffin at UFC 106 and couldn't feel his extremities. But the anti-inflammatories once again did their work, and Ortiz dragged himself to the Octagon—only to lose a split decision. His first neck surgery, a fusion of the C4 and C5 vertebrae, soon followed.

Ortiz and Griffin pushed each other to the limit in 2009.
Ortiz and Griffin pushed each other to the limit in 2009.Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

This became the story of his career, and it followed him to Bellator. He suffered a detached retina before his bout against Stephan Bonnar in 2014 and underwent another neck surgery after losing a title fight against Liam McGeary in 2015.

Not willing to go out on anyone's terms other than his own, Ortiz has come back for one final fight.

"It makes me so happy to see his energy," Miller said. "He's light. He has this huge, monster fight coming up, but he walks around like he doesn't have a care in the world. It's beautiful to see him enjoy his children and enjoy family. He was so afraid he would be bored after years of chaos. But he's enjoying every moment of his life. He's the man I knew he could be."

Even better, Miller says, is Sonnen's approach to the bout. He's spent hours with the media running Ortiz into the ground.

"He has done nothing but lie," Ortiz said. "Saying my car was repossessed. Saying I'm broke. Just recently, he did an interview talking about my ex. I take that very personally. I've never done an interview talking about his wife or his family. Him saying anything about my personal life pisses me off."

The new Ortiz is happy, spending his off time with his kids and on his boat. Sonnen's personal attacks have him fuming—providing the fuel a content man needs to power his way into a fight. Thanks to his opponent, he's found the mental space he needs to win.

"Tito likes it," Miller said. "He likes to get emotional, to have them say something that gets in his head. It drives him. Tito's best drive is a little bit of anger. I think that Chael knows that and honestly wants the best Tito. And he knows digging at him a little bit, on a personal level, will bring that out."

What might have been a forgettable swan song has morphed into a grudge match.

"I killed myself in this camp," Ortiz said. "That's how serious this fight is for me. I've done everything I need to do to win. The idea of losing hasn't even crossed my mind. I'm going to win. I'm going to dominate him. I'm going to show him the champion I truly am one last time."

    

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.

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