The Prodigal Son Returns
The musky scents of sweat, menthol liniment, and leather hang heavy in the air at the famed Wild Card Boxing Club, in Hollywood, California. Roughly twodozen fighters of all shapes, sizes, and skill sets pound bags, jump rope, and shadowbox. Wild Card’s owner is the most famous trainer in the world, Freddie Roach, and when he moves around the gym everyone there—the twelve-year-old street kids with big dreams, the Golden Gloves champs, the ex-contenders who carry their arthritic hands and stutters like badges of honor—stops to kiss his ring and pay his respects.
Spectators sit in dented and paint-chipped folding chairs that line one wall of the gym. Most of these chairs are always occupied by the same coterie of older men, and today is no different. They’re hard-assed white guys in their fifties, with bad prison tattoos and swollen knuckles, who sit here as if it were their job and engage in the only activity left for men who hang out in a fighting gym but don’t lace up gloves anymore: They gossip like schoolgirls. In the land where Freddie Roach is king, these are his court jesters.
The clock strikes three and a man walks through the door in designer sunglasses, with a large bag of gear slung over his shoulder. Four men trail after him, keeping a re- spectful half-step behind: One carries a video camera, another is a photographer wielding a paparazzi-caliber lens, one is a conditioning coach, and the last man seems to be here simply because he has nothing else to do.
“You see him?” asks one of Wild Card’s court jesters.
“Yep,” responds another.
“I knew him back in the day. That kid used to have heart.”
“What do you think happened? He got famous. It went to his head.”
The other fighters in the gym stop what they’re doing to catch a glimpse of this man. Some of the younger guys walk over and size him up. He smiles and bumps fists when they’re offered. He wraps his own hands, slips on 16-ounce gloves, and steps into the ring. He bounces lightly on his feet, graceful for someone who is six feet two and weighs, at this moment, probably a solid 225 pounds.
“Like ten years ago, he asked me to manage him,” says one of the court jesters. “I said ‘no’.”
“I never thought he had a chin.” Several moments pass as this declaration sets in. The other court jesters roll their eyes and laugh.
“You’re either a liar or the dumbest white man alive.”
King Freddie grabs his custom-made focus mitts and makes his way to the ring. The court jesters clam up when he walks past. The bell rings, signaling the start of the round, and Freddie begins working out with a man who is the current topic of conversation and his newest student. First jabs, then jab-cross combos. Hooks and slips come next. Leather snaps against leather. Freddie gives corrections in his soft, Parkinson’s inflected voice, barely a whisper. Three minutes go by fast. The bell chimes. Everyone in the gym grabs his sixty seconds of rest, except for Freddie and his disciple in the ring. They’re working five-minute rounds. Leather snaps against leather.
There are now three photographers circling the ring, documenting the training session from every angle imaginable. A visitor to the gym sidles up to one of them, a young woman in a dress.
“What do you think of him?” he asks her.
“Freddie?” she responds, still peering through her lens, clicking away. “He’s great. He lets me come in here and take pictures whenever I want.”
“Not Freddie. The guy Freddie’s training right now.”
“Him? He’s an actor, right? I think I saw him on one of those reality shows.”
“Actually, he’s a fighter,” says the visitor.
“Really? Is he any good?”
“He’s one of the best light heavyweights to ever fight in the UFC.”
“Huh. But he’s been on TV, right?” she asks.
“Well, at least I knew he was an actor.”
Freddie holds for hook-cross-hook combos off a bob-and-weave. He never stops whispering. Leather snaps against leather. His student drips in sweat. His feet dance just a few beats more slowly now, more heavily, as if he were relearning the steps all over again. The five-minute round ticks away. The bell rings, finally signaling a break in the action.
Tito Ortiz walks over to his corner and pukes into a bucket. Freddie Roach just smiles to himself.
Tito sips from a water bottle and rolls out his neck. The bell rings. Time in. “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” trains his eyes on Freddie’s mitts and moves towards him, bringing his hands back up to his chin.
“I liked him on that reality show with Donald Trump,” says the photographer.
“Sure. Tito’s got a lot of personality.”
“He still fights?”
“Yeah. That’s why he’s here with Freddie. He’s getting ready for his first fight in a year and a half.”
“He’s rich and famous. Why bother?” she asks.
The visitor looks at her for a long moment and shrugs. “I guess you’d have to ask him.”
Tito Ortiz lives in a huge house on the water in Huntington Beach, with a Bentley, an Escalade, and a Benz in the driveway. Anchored at the dock is a large, sleek boat with a Punishment Athletics logo affixed to the hull. He lives in board shorts, and when the sun is out—which is every day in these parts—he rubs lotion on the shoulders of his girlfriend, the retired adult film actress Jenna Jameson. He dotes on their newborn twin sons, Jesse and Journey. He’s the most recognizable person in town, a bona fide celebrity who doesn’t wait in lines or pay for meals.
These trappings of luxury are a long way from his victorious debut against Wes Albritton at UFC 13, in 1997. Back then, Tito was a wrestler at Golden West College and a training partner of Tank Abbott’s. “I watched Jerry Bolander compete in the UFC,” he explains.“I wrestled him in high school and I beat him, so when I saw him winning in MMA, I knew I had to try it. But I wanted to keep my amateur athlete status so I could keep competing in college and maintain my scholarship, which meant I couldn’t accept any prize money. I literally fought for free.” He entered the Octagon that night in Georgia, and it was the last time nobody in the crowd would know his name.
Tito Ortiz was the heavy underdog. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he remembers. “I knew Wes was a black belt in karate and a kickboxer, and that’s it. I was really scared. To this day, I’m afraid in all my fights. I’m human, no different than anybody else in that way.” Tito won by TKO stoppage at thirty-one seconds into the first round. Due to his amateur status, he passed up the $15,000 purse, went back to his hotel with his cornermen, and promptly charged a $5,000 tab for drinks to Frank Shamrock’s room. The legend of the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” was born.
After twenty-one fights, a UFC Light Heavyweight championship, a memorable stint as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter, and a few record-setting performances on pay-per-view, to say that his life got complicated would be a gross understatement. Since losing the final fight on his UFC contract to Lyoto Machida back in May 2008, Tito tirelessly played up his free agent status in the media, hurling barbs at his former manager-turned-nemesis Dana White and teasing MMA fans with so many “huge announcements” that never came to fruition they verged on parody.
At one point or another, Tito was close to signing a deal with literally every fight promotion that had a logo, cage, or ring. For a few weeks, he was going to start his own organization to rival the UFC. He took business lessons from Donald Trump on national television. He impregnated the most famous porn star of all time. When Josh Barnett tested positive for steroids and had to pull out of his fight with Fedor Emelianenko, for a good two or three hours (an eternity in the MMA blogosphere) Tito Ortiz was rumored to be the leading candidate to replace him. As he had throughout his entire twelve-year career, Tito played the media perfectly. And then there was the rumor of retirement. It made sense. He was a multimillionaire. Critics started calling his relentless ground-and-pound style archaic and boring. He had celebrated his thirty-fourth birthday.
“Yeah, I thought about it,” says Tito as he sits on the deck of his home, watching his boat glimmer in the Southern California sun. His self-imposed sabbatical from fighting has done nothing to affect his charisma or wipe from his face that self-satisfied grin of the cat who ate the canary. During his time away, he kept up with his friends in the UFC. He saw old adversaries like Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva suffer the indignities of aging in a violent sport. He pauses for a moment to think about seeing them brutally knocked out in the cage. The grin fades away.
“That’s not going to happen to me,” he promises. “We’re different creatures, totally different human beings. I look at the big picture. I was hanging out with Chuck at UFC 100, and he’s not he same guy, man. Not at all. He’s taken some serious damage. Look at Wanderlei’s fights. He’s taken serious damage. These guys, they let their hearts take over too much. They just don’t care. I know the fans love to see guys go toe-to-toe and try to kill each other. But the fans don’t see us afterwards. They don’t see the stitches and the cuts and the bruises and the concussions. All they care about is watching an awesome fight.”
The sun shifts, illuminating Tito’s face and his famously large cranium with its close-cropped dyed blond hair. His knuckles and hands look like those of a warrior. But despite the twenty-two fights under his belt, his face does not. He gazes over at Jenna, who is sunning herself near the water in a bikini. She looks over her shoulder at him and smiles.
“I’ve been hit ten, maybe fifteen times in my career,” says Tito. “There was Liddell, Couture, and Wanderlei. Machida got me once. Rashad got me a couple times. But I haven’t taken any serious damage because I move and I block and I defend myself. I fight a smart fight. When Chuck and Wanderlei fought, those two guys went out and really tried to kill each other. They went toe-to-toe and it was a great fight, but I’d love to have an intelligent conversation with somebody without stuttering or slurring my words. Believe me, when the time comes for me to retire, I’ll know it.”
Jenna walks over with one of their twin sons, Journey. The baby is beautiful. Jenna’s signature blonde mane from her film days has been replaced by brown hair. She’s the skin-flick starlet who grew up to be the beautiful girl next door. Over her shoulder, through the doors that lead into their living room, an entire wall is occupied by a black-and-white professionally shot photograph of the couple. It’s a more intimate portrait of the same image that millions of people have seen on television and in magazines: Tito with Jenna at his side, their best angles facing the camera, their teeth impossibly white and their smiles inscrutable.
Tito holds Journey in his arms and coos. As with everything else in Tito’s world, it’s tough to tell where the public persona ends and the actual man begins. And then Jenna senses the moment is over. She smiles a goodbye and takes Journey back inside the house.
“She asked me out on MySpace,” he says, watching her leave. “She knew what she wanted and she got it. When I was single, it was really hard to find a girl to hang out with and talk on any level. Dude, there’s a lot of hot chicks out there, but once they open their mouths it’s like ‘oh man, shut up please.’ Jenna’s mother died when she was three. Her father wasn’t there for her. She had to take care of herself. Well, I’m the same damned person and that’s why we work so well. We’re exactly the same person.”
When Tito was six years old, his father went through surgery to repair a hernia and got hooked on morphine. He graduated from morphine to heroin, and soon both he and Tito’s mother became junkies. They went bankrupt. They lived in cars on the streets of Santa Ana. Tito started stealing food to eat.
“It was hell,” he remembers. “I can say it. It’s what made me who I am today.” Shortly before his fight against Lyoto Machida, Tito went to visit his father for the first time in years. He was plagued by nightmares about his childhood. Thinking about his father hurt. He needed clarity and closure, so he went back to Santa Ana to see the man who tried—and failed—to raise him.
“I sat there with him and I cried,” says Tito. “I tried to express my feelings, and he just had this blank look on his face. I was just looking for an apology and I didn’t get it…” His voice trails off. He stares at the waves off his dock and takes a breath before resuming. “He could’ve said he was sorry and that he didn’t know any better. He could’ve said he was sorry for putting me through things like he did, but there was no apology at all.” He forces out a smile, this one half-hearted at best. “But it’s fine.”
Does your father watch your fights?
“Yeah, of course he does.”
Is he proud of you?
“I imagine he’s very proud of me.”
You imagine? Did he ever actually tell you that?
Tito Ortiz swallows hard. It makes the barely perceptible quiver in his lip disappear. “No,” he says softly. “Not ever. Maybe he didn’t understand how to be a father. Maybe he didn’t know how to be supportive or… Or maybe he was just too fucking stupid to realize it.” He turns and looks back at the doors to his home, where Jenna has taken one of his newborn sons just minutes ago. “People will always tell you they love someone, you know: ‘I love my chick so much, I’d do anything for her.’ Bullshit. That’s bullshit. Have a kid and you’ll understand love, because there’s nothing in the world like it. I never understood why my parents did what they did to me at such a young age, and let me see the things I saw and go through the shit that I went through. I could never do that to my sons.”
Shortly after that return to Santa Ana to see his father, he had the Machida bout and was faced with the end of his contract. No renewal had been signed, and there was no agreement on the horizon. For the first time in his career, Tito found himself buried at the bottom of a UFC card against a defensive counter-striker that management handpicked to make him look bad on his way out of the organization. It was Tito’s twenty-second fight, and he had gone from fighting for free to earning a healthy six figures just to show up. But his mind wasn’t in the game. He was thinking about the three children he supports (other than his twins, Jesse and Journey, he has a seven-year-old son named Jacob from a previous marriage). He was thinking about what it would be like to let them down. The thought of it scared him.
There was also a well-publicized feud with the UFC’s self-styled father figure, Dana White. “Dana and I used to be so close,” Tito remembers. “Years ago, he wanted to be my manager. He came to Huntington Beach knocking on my door, and he said: ‘Just give me a chance. I’ll fight for everything you’ve ever wanted and I’ll get you everything you’ve ever wanted if you just give me that chance.’ Dana fought to get me pay-per-view dollars, and everything was going awesome. Then he became president of the UFC, and when I started asking for the things he was asking for, he wouldn’t give them to me. And it got very personal. I went into survival mode.” Tito looks down at the worn, cracked skin on hands for a long moment. “Look, I have nothing to fall back on, no brothers, no parents. It’s just me. Prior to that fight, it felt like everybody was against me. All the UFC guys, Dana, my fans. Somehow things had just gotten crazy.”
He’d wake up at night in a cold sweat, telling himself that he’d never turn into his father. Unlike him, Tito Ortiz was going to keep on fighting, no matter what.
Lyoto Machida out-pointed him and won on the judges’ scorecards, but Tito came close to submitting “The Dragon” with a triangle choke that transitioned into an arm bar in the final round. It wasn’t enough to win, but it was enough to prove a point to himself: Despite the whole deck being stacked against him, Tito Ortiz still didn’t quit.
“I’ve got to give it to Machida,” he says. “He fought a smart fight. He fought tactically and with elusiveness, which I like to call being a pussy and running away, but that’s fine. He’s the champ now, so I guess I lost to the champ. But you know what? I stood up for what I believed in, walked away from Dana White and the UFC for a year, waited for them to come to me. And they did. I had a lot of hurt feelings for a while. When I lost my world title and the UFC didn’t invite me to the ten-year anniversary, I was hurt by it. I helped them get to where they are right now, and to slap me in the face like that, it was heart-wrenching.”
And then, after months of negotiations, the UFC came back to him. He sat in his office and watched as the fax machine printed out his contract. Things came full circle. The contract said something that no one else ever did, something that meant more than money, which Tito Ortiz had already. It meant that someone was proud of him and he wasn’t afraid to say it out loud.
“I signed that deal and I kind of got a little tear in my eye,” he says. “Because I did it. On my terms, the way I wanted it, bigger and better than I ever imagined. I won. I stood up to a billion-dollar company and I won. I’ve got so much respect for Dana and Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta because they’re going out of their pocket to take care of us fighters. In ten years, I’ll still be a part of the UFC, maybe not fighting but doing something. Dana said it himself: ‘You’ll always be a part of our family.’” Tito exhales as if a huge weight had been lifted from his broad shoulders. “You know what? That’s all I ever wanted to hear.”
Finally, he’s heard it. By his own admission, Tito Ortiz has gotten everything he ever wanted and more. It’s the kind of thing that makes for a happy man, but not necessarily a hungry fighter. In fact, he only admits he’s a fighter when pressed to do so. “I’m an average person who works really hard,” you’ll hear him say. Or: “Yeah, I do mixed martial arts, but I also own a clothing company, Punishment Athletics.” And: “I’m actually a businessman.” Everyone has his number: the number of dollars he needs to make before he can feel satisfied, and walk away from the rigors of his career to retire fat and happy. Tito Ortiz is no different.
“Sure, I wish I was a billionaire so I could just fight for fun, but I’m not.”
But what if he were?
He pauses to think about it, the gears in his mind turning, considering this question longer than any other, perhaps because he can imagine reaching his number someday, until finally… “Sure. Why not? I’d fight once a year and fight the best. Going into that cage and feeling the intensity and the energy in the air, there’s nothing like it. Money can’t buy that feeling. There are plenty of billionaires out there who’d give anything to be in my shoes on those nights, but that’ll never happen for them.”
If his children, his woman, and the Bentley in his driveway have made the Huntington Beach Bad Boy soft, Tito won’t admit it. The mere suggestion causes him to unleash a list of men he wants to see in the Octagon. Rashad Evans (“I have a draw with him, and it was so frustrating.”). Forrest Griffin (“I beat him on a split decision, but everyone thought I lost to him, so I need to crush him and shut him up.”). Lyoto Machida (“Next time he ain’t going to get away so quick, last time he barely survived and he gassed.”). Even Renato “Babalu” Sobral (“He’s with Strikeforce, but he’s talked a lot of smack, and I would love to slap the shit out of him, so maybe the UFC will go get him for me.”).
For the first time since his bout against Randy Couture in 2003, Tito Ortiz will enter the cage completely healthy, now that the back problems that have plagued him have fully healed. As an elder statesman in MMA, he is acutely aware of the advantages given to fighters by performanceenhancing drugs, but he takes a strong stand against them. “I’m an alpha male,” he says, “my body type is athletic. I’m very genetically gifted, and I’ve been training since I was a freshman in high school. Guys who do steroids are looking for the easy way out; they want to recover more quickly. My recovery is to sit in an ice bath, and it sucks. I really hope that my opponents use steroids because it means they’re mentally and emotionally weak. I’ll press them like I did Vitor Belfort. I broke him because he was built up to a certain point and his heart couldn’t recover quickly enough, so he gassed out. I remember back in the day when Mark Coleman was huge as an ox and he got kicked in the face by Pete Williams and gassed out. He looked for the easy way to get strong and look good on TV, and that’s not what it’s about. Nothing will ever beat hard work.”
Back at the Wild Card Boxing Club, Tito is pushing through the last of ten rounds in the ring. Leather snaps against leather. He breathes heavily. His feet and hands have slowed but his eyes are still focused on King Freddie.
“Ten seconds!” shouts one of the guys in Tito’s corner.
And, in the blink of an eye, Tito Ortiz changes levels, goes low, and shoots in for a world-class double-leg takedown, locking Freddie Roach in his steel grip, lifting him up and then gently setting his trainer down. Freddie just laughs, nonplussed. Tito grins to himself. He’s still got it the chops. The bell rings, signaling the end of the round and the completion of the workout. Tito leans against his corner in the ring and lets the sweat pour off him, catching his breath. The court jesters of Wild Card are still lounging in their chairs against the far wall, still offering their analyses to anyone within earshot.
“There’s always haters, but they never come up and talk shit,” Tito says. “They’re always the ones hiding behind their buddies or the ones standing a hundred feet away. But it’s cool if guys want to talk shit on me. You can say I’m a pussy. You can say I never fought anybody tough. You can say I’m too old, or I’m past my prime, or that I’ve gotten soft.” He turns and walks away. “But just wait. You’ll see.”
He pulls off his gloves. He starts tearing away the tape and gauze from his knuckles. He walks past the crowd that has gathered to watch him train and, maybe out of just one ear, he listens for someone to say something, anything. But the elder court jesters of Wild Card Boxing Club just look down at the floor, silent.
Tito Ortiz is back.