Tito Ortiz finds inspiration (cont.)
By 2000, the UFC was dying, but Ortiz had become the most popular fighter in the world. He poured himself equally into training and self-promotion. Disenchanted by the lack of sponsorship opportunities available to fighters at the time, he launched his Punishment Athletics clothing line and began to sell T-shirts himself in hotel lobbies at events. He printed his own trading cards and walked the arena row by row, placing one on every seat.
"When the fans aren't there, it's no longer a sport," says Ortiz. "The T-shirts, the Gravedigger, the flamed shorts, the beanies: it was marketing from the beginning. It was, what can I do so I'm not forgotten?"
Ortiz's efforts caught more than just the fans' attention. In early 2000, Dana White, a Las Vegas boxing gym owner with friends in high places, approached Ortiz to manage him. Ortiz says it was White who hung up on UFC owner Bob Meyrowitz when he wouldn't agree to the new manager's demands. (Meyrowitz conceded the next day, according to Ortiz.)
Within a year, Meyrowitz would sell the UFC to the Fertitta brothers, who had been tipped off about the promotion's dire straits by White, an old high school friend. White became president and a minority owner of Zuffa LLC, the company created to run UFC events and turn the floundering brand around.
Ortiz was passed to a lawyer who had close ties with White and wouldn't push the promotion for concessions like first-class airfare or extra tickets to shows. But when Ortiz's contract renewal came up in 2003, he'd shed his representation and wanted to negotiate a new deal himself. At this point, Fertitta probably regretted taking Ortiz to Big Bear in the first place.
"I looked at boxing and saw that 75 percent of the revenue went to boxers and only six percent went to [MMA] fighters," says Ortiz. "What was I doing differently from boxers? I decided to stand my ground."
Ortiz sat out the next 10 months, as both sides rehashed his contract. He said Fertitta and White verbally promised him bigger purses and other incentives down the road, but Ortiz wanted everything in writing.
"Lorenzo and Dana were pissed that I didn't have trust in them, but I was kid who'd never had trust," says Ortiz. "I didn't know who to trust; my whole life had been like that. I wasn't going to do something on someone's word. I can't tell you how many times my dad said he would be there for me and never was."
Ortiz eventually became one of the first fighters (if not the first) to receive a sliver of the promotion's pay-per-view revenues when he fought -- but it came at a price. As Ortiz and other fighters who challenged the promotion's business model would learn, in Zuffa's eyes, you were either with them or against them. There was no in-between.
In subsequent renegotiation periods in 2005 and 2008, Ortiz leveraged his popularity into other opportunities outside the sport. He did a guest referee stint for TNA pro wrestling in 2005 and in 2008 appeared on The Celebrity Apprentice. Ortiz also played rival promotions -- all looking to snatch him away -- against one another to remind Zuffa that he was still a bona fide commodity.
"[It was] all negotiations. I was never going anywhere," says Ortiz, who was fueled by his desire to make a better life for his children than the one he'd had. "I was just showing the UFC that I was worth the money they'd be paying me."
During this time, White's festering disdain for Ortiz spilled into the public. Both sides had their unflattering moments. In 2007, White was behind a bizarre Spike TV special that documented an exhibition boxing match the two had allegedly agreed upon but never happened. The show painted Ortiz as a coward when White claimed the fighter no-showed at the weigh-ins. What the special didn't show was Ortiz's side and his insistence that White knew ahead of time that Ortiz wouldn't commit to the bout because the financials hadn't been squared away in time. In May 2008, Ortiz retaliated with a "Dana is my b---h" T-shirt he wore to the UFC 84 weigh-ins.
"We're both alpha males and you can't have two of them in one room," says Ortiz.
Discussing White brings on a mix of emotions for the fighter. Ortiz seems genuinely hurt by White's past and present actions, but he's also remorseful for his own behavior at times.
"Dana was a great friend of mine," said Ortiz. "I loved him. I still love him. He hates me, but I love him. He did a lot for me. I remember the day he came to my apartment and said, 'Tito, give me one chance and I'll make you a millionaire.'"
On Friday, Zuffa will induct Ortiz into the UFC Hall of Fame as its eighth member, though it seems unlikely that the fighter will receive any more recognition from the promotion than that. However, there's still a strong army of fans who will always accept him for who he is and what he's done in the sport.
"I was always dying for the attention, for the love, and MMA is what gave it to me," he says. "The fans gave that to me."
And with the conclusion of the interview, a teary-eyed Ortiz rises from his seat and disappears out the door.
With his media commitments nearly finished for the day, Ortiz is spread out on the couch in the main house, watching a UFC event on Fox Deportes. The bouts aren't captivating, but they don't have to be to keep a fighter's attention.
Freddy is in the kitchen marinating mountains of raw meat in disposable tin pans for dinner. The counters are packed with cases of energy drinks, tubs of powders and a variety of other nutritional supplements.
Ortiz's support team convenes here to discuss the night's details. Jason Parillo, a retired pro boxer who's coached Ortiz for his last few fights, is sitting at a side table. Ortiz usually does his cardio training when he wakes, attacking one of the local mountain terrains on his bike, but since the media took up that time today, the missed cardio will have to be made up elsewhere.
Aaron Rosa, an introverted heavyweight who Ortiz flew in from Texas, is out on the back deck at a picnic table with a few others. Paul Lacanilao, Ortiz's strength and conditioning coach for the last decade, is standing close by. They're all waiting for Ortiz's cue to convene at the garage for the night training session. During his entire career, Ortiz has trained so he peaks around 8 p.m. -- roughly the same time he steps into the cage for his fights.
Ortiz finally emerges from the house, slamming the kitchen's screen door behind him. First up will be sparring with Parillo. For a few minutes, Ortiz hits the mitts for the benefit of the cameras before the crew is politely asked to come back later. Most fighters don't want their striking practices recorded and posted online for their opponents to study and digest. Ortiz, a wrestler who never fully adapted to the striking game, is at his most vulnerable now. The strangers are politely ushered outside as the garage doors roll down, the pulsating bass of the music blaring inside floats off into the night.
Meanwhile, the group in the main house's living room is joined by Jenna Jameson, who has driven up from Los Angeles with a friend to spend the weekend. Ortiz and Jameson have been together for six years and have 3-year-old twin boys, Jesse and Jette. Jameson is probably the most recognizable (former) porn star in the world, and like Ortiz, she has leveraged her niche celebrity into mainstream success.
Jameson's battles with drug dependency aren't a secret, and she and Ortiz have had some rocky moments because of it. But there's no doubting that they are in love. When Ortiz comes into the house for a few minutes respite between sessions, he collapses onto the couch next to her, resting his head in her lap.
Kenny, a 5-foot-5 Asian with a full-shirt tattoo and a Fu Manchu down to his chest that makes him a Central Casting favorite, has the group's attention as he enthusiastically describes his stint on HBO's True Blood as a featured vampire. The mood in the room is light, which is just the way a fighter likes it before he heads into battle. Part of the reason why Ortiz surrounds himself with these men is because they put him at ease. He can be himself in front of them without fear of judgment, and that allows him to concentrate on more pressing matters.
By 10:30 p.m., Ortiz and his team are back in the garage. Ortiz is sitting on the stairs next to the cage, trying to give his body a little extra rest before he starts a hellish strength and conditioning regimen.
"I do get tired of this," he admits. "The fighting's the fun part. This isn't."
Sensing his weariness, Lacanilao summons Ortiz to the first apparatus and begins leading him through a grueling chain of exercises, one after the other, involving weights and pulleys. Ortiz is still in phenomenal shape for a 37-year-old and can push his body far past what it should be able to do at his age. Throughout his career, he has had five major surgeries, including risky back and neck fusion operations from which other athletes might not have come back. Ortiz did, but the wear and tear on him remains.
The session moves outside into the driveway. Paul instructs Ortiz to grab a rope wrapped around the trunk of the biggest tree on the property and begin shrugging with all his might for one minute. Then Ortiz must pick up a 40-pound medicine ball and throw it over his back across the asphalt, run to the other end to pick it up, and then throw it over his shoulder again.
It's pitch black outside now and bats are flying around Ortiz's head as he races back and forth between the tree and the driveway with Lacanilao in tow. The guys watch from the sidelines, some lending words of encouragement as Ortiz grunts, moans, then screams out in pain. He is exhausted, but he doesn't quit until Lacanilao is satisfied.
At the grill, turning over pounds of chicken, beef and asparagus, Ortiz is tired, but content. He didn't train at Big Bear for his last two fights and, he says, he wasn't prepared, which greatly shook his confidence. Being back here on the hallowed grounds where boxing greats have also sweat and bled gives him inspiration.
It's 1 a.m. when everyone finally sits down at the dining room table to eat. Even Jameson joins the feast for a few bites. The room is alive with conversation and camaraderie. This isn't a team, it's a family. Everyone knows they're a part of something special and this is one of the last times they will get to share moments like this.
After the meal, Ortiz wishes everyone a good night. He and Jameson slip out the door and head back to the other house. Tomorrow he will start all over again and five weeks after this writer's visit to his camp, he'll say goodbye to this way of life forever. But on this night, he's surrounded by people who love and support him unconditionally, and that makes him a very happy man.