Posted: Friday July 6, 2012 4:50AM ; Updated: Friday July 6, 2012 1:24PM
Loretta Hunt
Loretta Hunt>INSIDE MMA

Tito Ortiz inspired for final bout of his illustrious 15-year MMA career

Story Highlights

Tito Ortiz went back to hallowed ground to prepare for the end of his MMA career

Ortiz was one of the first MMA fighters to receive a slice of pay-per-view money

Surrounded by his team, he finds focus and confidence in his hellish training

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One-on-one with Tito Ortiz
Source: SI
SI.com's Loretta Hunt sits down with former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Tito Ortiz before his July 7th bout with Forrest Griffin.

To get to Tito Ortiz's training camp in Big Bear, Calif., you have to snake up a single-lane road, twisting and turning perilously through the San Bernardino Mountains for nearly 90 minutes until you reach the reservoir community at 6,750 feet above sea level. It's not a ride for the faint of heart, but neither was Ortiz's 15-year rollercoaster career in mixed martial arts. He reaches the end of that road Saturday at UFC 148 in Las Vegas, facing Forrest Griffin a third time in his record 27th and final Octagon appearance.

If you survive the drive, Big Bear eventually emerges from behind the rock. It's a picturesque four-season resort town with tackle stores and ski shops on every corner. Think log cabins, summer camp, evergreens and glistening lake, quiet and solitude. It's been a choice destination for boxers like Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya, Lennox Lewis and Fernando Vargas, and Olympians who regularly use high-altitude training to boost their endurance. Lorenzo Fertitta brought Ortiz here in 2001 to show him how the pros did it, shortly after Fertitta and his brother Frank purchased the Ultimate Fighting Championship for $2 million.

"Lorenzo said if I wanted to be a champion, I had to train like a champion," says Ortiz.

Ortiz has returned many times through the years to escape the daily distractions that arise when a fighter trains close to home. Up at Big Bear, there are no calls regarding his many business ventures. There is no family drama. There is just isolation.

Ortiz's property is tucked away in a residential area with neighboring houses on either side, all of them groomed to perfection. You might drive right by without noticing the place if not for the black iron gates adorned with a permanent sign that reads "TRAINING CAMP CLOSED TO PUBLIC." Behind the gates lies a modern-day oasis: two lavish two-story log cabins are surrounded by a manicured landscape with a running brook and a walking bridge to the left and a putting green to the right. Pine trees are scattered all over the property.

In 2007, Ortiz purchased this single-acre compound that De La Hoya had built for himself from scratch. No other professional MMA fighter has made such a hefty investment in training, but Ortiz believes Big Bear is well worth it. He says the place puts him in "the fighting mood," and that is invaluable. More importantly, the place seems to feed Ortiz's confidence: if he has put in the time at Big Bear, then he knows he's as prepared as he can be.

The garage has been converted into a gym with a regulation-size cage, weightlifting equipment and a sauna. Ortiz bought the place, contents and all, so there are reminders of De La Hoya all around. In the trainers' house, an eight-foot-wide, hand-carved Mayan calendar is mounted on one of the slanted ceiling panels that look down on the living room. A wooden bench etched with the boxer's name sits outside the main entrance, which is accented with impeccable cobblestone work. The other residence, where Ortiz stays, is decorated with golf paraphernalia and has a video game arcade, a plush pool table, and an empty 10-by-8 display aquarium with a treasure chest inside. De La Hoya spared no expense.

"It's all the things I wanted as a kid," says Ortiz. "I saw it and thought it would be comfortable."

If Willy Wonka had been a fighter, he'd have created something like this place. And it's here at this combat sports wonderland that Ortiz comes bouncing out of the trainers' house at 1 p.m. to welcome his guests, his eyes still bleary with sleep. The 37-year-old fighter doesn't wake any earlier than 11:30 a.m. to start his day. Until then, the compound and its many residents stay as quiet as church mice.

Ortiz is five weeks into his nine-week camp and he's chipper. He underwent arthroscopic knee surgery a month earlier and is grateful that the joint is still holding up. "Lorenzo and Dana [White] would kill me if I dropped out [of the fight]," he says, before ducking back into one of the houses.

SI VideoTito Ortiz on Dana White and his regrets

Freddy, Ortiz's easygoing right-hand man, instantly appears to pick up the ball. Freddy handles the details, from the comings and goings of the visitors, trainers and friends of friends who pop in and out during Ortiz's daily schedule. Freddy has been friends with Ortiz for more than a decade and assisted in many of his fight camps.

Freddy conducts the tour of the houses, which are littered with additional beds in every possible corner. The compound can accommodate at least a dozen people, but this camp, the very last of Ortiz's career, is decidedly more intimate, with only a handful of his trusted circle of friends on hand. This is the last hurrah.

The mind game

Ortiz comes flying through the door with the boyish bounce in his step that he's known for. Natural sunlight beams into the spacious living room and he has a smile to match. Ortiz has never met a microphone or TV camera he didn't like and he made it a habit to do as many interviews as he can throughout his career.

"Part of the job," he chirps.

Ortiz is in a generous mood today. He's excited to go down memory lane and pay respect to the figures who've nudged his career forward along the way. The first is David "Tank" Abbott, the abrasive barroom brawler who emerged as an unlikely star circa UFC 6 in 1995. Ortiz met Abbott through their mutual wrestling coach, Paul Herrera, and became Abbott's wrestling partner. Abbott got the 22-year-old Ortiz his first fight at UFC 13 in 1997. But Abbott's greatest gift to Ortiz was opening the young fighter's eyes to possibilities. The cruder Abbott acted in and out of the Octagon, the more fans seemed to love him.

"I saw the opportunity [Abbott] had in the UFC when it first began," said Ortiz, "but Tank only thought about the fight game. I thought of it as a business. What would I do when I was 40 years old?"

These aren't the typical thoughts of a 22-year-old, but as a child of absentee parents who were both gripped by drug addiction, Ortiz's mind was programmed early for a life of self-reliance. With little guidance, he got into fights often and spent some time in a street gang while growing up in Orange County, Calif. "I was a bad kid coming up," he said. "I said what I said and didn't care. I just wore my heart on my sleeve."

Ortiz's role models came from television: pro-wrestling icon Hulk Hogan and boxing legend Muhammad Ali were among his idols. "I was a big fan of Ali and how he'd smack-talk fighters," he says. "I studied his interviews and how he'd get into [his opponent's] heads."

Tito Ortiz
Underneath his brash persona, Tito Ortiz was wise beyond his years.
Kevin Lock/Zuma/Icon SMI

After his first UFC wins (he fought twice at UFC 13), Ortiz quickly crafted his cage persona -- a heightened version of the big-mouthed hoodlum of his youth. The "Huntington Beach Bad Boy" was brash and impulsive, employing a lot of theatrical devices never seen before in the struggling sport.

His first victory T-shirt featured a crude remark and he coupled that with his own version of an end-zone dance -- a pantomime of digging the grave of his fallen opponent and burying him there in the Octagon before flashing guns from his imaginary holsters. The fans went bananas for it.

"A porn company paid me $5,000 to put the T-shirt on after my fight. I was only making a quarter of that to fight," said Ortiz. "The T-shirts were kind of by accident at first, but I realized I was onto something."

Ortiz wore his "Gay Mezger is my [b----]" shirt after he beat the seasoned Lion's Den fighter in their UFC 19 rematch, infuriating the team's patriarch, Ken Shamrock. One of the sport's enduring early images is of Shamrock hanging over the cage's lip, wagging his finger in the newcomer's face and demanding that he show a little respect. Ortiz welcomed the confrontation so much that referee "Big" John McCarthy picked the fighter up like an over-adventurous toddler and carried him back to his corner to defuse the showdown. (Ortiz-Shamrock would become the first great rivalry of the Zuffa UFC era.)

Like Abbott, Ortiz resonated with the bloodthirsty 20-year-olds who had come to watch a beatdown. However, the similarities between Abbott and Ortiz stopped there. Outside the Octagon, Abbott didn't like to train, but Ortiz knew it was a necessity.

After his 1999 defeat by UFC middleweight champion Frank Shamrock at UFC 25, Ortiz went back to his day job as a clerk at Spanky's Adult Novelty Store, but owner Ron Haskins wouldn't let him stay for long. Haskins told Ortiz that if he'd nearly beaten a fighter with years more experience, so he owed it to himself to give the sport all he had. Haskins became Ortiz's benefactor, agreeing to cover his rent, food and cell phone expenses if he'd train full time.

Ortiz immediately traveled to Frank Shamrock's gym in San Jose and trained with him for a month straight. Shamrock showed Ortiz that there was a science to fighting. Ortiz had never seen a heart rate monitor before Shamrock strapped one to his body. Ortiz learned how to read (and eventually control) his own body. His recovery time and endurance improved drastically. Six months later, Ortiz -- now training in multiple disciplines -- became a UFC champion.

"I owe it to Frank. He's the first guy to understood all-around what this sport was," he says. "Wrestling, boxing, jiu-jitsu and kickboxing; he understood all of them and when he left [Shamrock relinquished his title after UFC 25 and retired from the sport], I followed in his footsteps."

 
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