On July 31, 2013, former UFC light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz came out of retirement and signed with Bellator, ushering in a new era for his career. Unfortunately, it would take nearly a year before Ortiz actually made his Bellator debut.
A series of injuries and personal problems set Ortiz back, but he never lost focus and finally returned to MMA this past May in one of the year’s biggest upsets when he defeated Bellator middleweight champion Alexander Shlemenko in a light heavyweight non-title fight.
As he neared his showdown with fellow former UFC stalwart Stephan Bonnar in Bellator this coming Saturday, Ortiz spoke to MMAWeekly.com about his year of rebuilding, defeating Shlemenko and what he has his eye on for the coming year.
MMAWeekly.com: Firstly, Tito, tell us about the time from when you first signed with Bellator last year to finally fighting this past May and everything you went through.
Tito Ortiz: I took the fight against Rampage (Quinton Jackson) and ended up getting injured because I wasn’t in great shape. I was in good enough shape to fight, but I like to be in the shape to fight a few times. I made a mistake and did a fall on my head, cracked vertebra in my neck, needed stem cell injections, and had to pull out of the fight. There was a lot of drama along that whole situation.
I got the stem cell injection and the bone healed up to where the facture was no longer there, and so I wanted a warm-up fight, and that warm-up fight was against (Bellator’s middleweight) world champion. I took the fight on four weeks’ notice and stopped him in 2:27. I think I was a 5-to-1 underdog, but I feel my mind was in the right place and my body was in the right place, and I competed at the highest level I possibly could and I was ready to fight.
It’s great to get respect from Bellator, Spike TV, and Viacom. It’s nice to have a company that has my back now. It’s one of those things where if I have a great environment, I fight great.
Tito Ortiz: From the beginning of my career in 2003 when I had my first ACL tear, I’ve always believed in myself. I never thought that it would be over for me. I just thought about what I need to do to prepare, what I needed to do to make myself better, and just keep my mind strong and nose to the grindstone.
I’ve always bounced back faster than any athlete has ever done with knee surgery, neck surgery, back surgery; and I’m very lucky that I have a strong will, a strong mind, and I believe in myself. That’s always been the answer – believing in myself.
MMAWeekly.com: Tell us your thoughts on your upcoming bout this Saturday in San Diego against Stephan Bonnar at Bellator 131.
Tito Ortiz: For this upcoming fight with Stephan Bonnar, I’ve been able to put in the work and had nine weeks to prepare for this fight, so I’m on target and ready to fight once again. My mind is in a good place right now. My mindset, my body, my training, everything is almost perfect. It’s almost like I’m in a dream because everything is falling into place. I guess you have to go through hell to get to heaven and I’m feeling like I’m in heaven right now.
I’ve just got to apply pressure. This is going to be a pressure fight. There are a lot of emotions behind it. My will has never been stronger than it ever has. I think my skillset is a lot better than his; standing, wrestling, on the ground; and we’ll see if he can handle the ferocity of Tito Ortiz. I’ve just got to do what I’ve done in all my matches – and that is to just put on the pressure and see if he can get out from underneath an iron sheet.
MMAWeekly.com: At this point in your career, do you still set goals or do you feel like it’s best to just go fight-by-fight and see what happens?
Tito Ortiz: I set goals. Every single day I set goals in the gym, I set goals with my children, with my life and my career. This week it’s strictly about this week and my goal is getting my hand raised. After this goal is set, I think the next one will be getting that title around my waist. I’ve got to take care of this goal first (against Bonner) before I start looking beyond that.
MMAWeekly.com: Thanks for taking time out for us, Tito. Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?
Tito Ortiz: This is a very personal fight. Bonnar has crossed the line in many ways. I’m just excited to get out there and showcase my skills in front of all the fans, so makes sure you check it out free on Spike.