These days, mixed martial arts is a profession. It’s a reasonable career path for former amateur wrestlers or other standout athletes that want to remain competitive beyond high school and college. For others its their first choice, training from day one to be fighters.
But not so long ago, it wasn’t considered a career path at all. There wasn’t a lot of money to be made, and at times, it wasn’t even regarded as a sport.
That’s the era that former UFC light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz comes from. A good wrestler in high school and beyond, Ortiz didn’t even really know much about MMA when he was considering his career choices.
So asking him when he knew he wanted to become a mixed martial artist wasn’t even on his radar.
“I never knew I wanted to be an MMA fighter. I wanted to be a high school teacher and a wrestling coach,” Ortiz answered when asked that very question on Thursday. “That was all I was going to do. Back in ’96, I think, I was training with Tank Abbott. I didn’t know about doing MMA. The UFC was so new back then.”
But a former opponent from his high school wrestling days ignited the initial spark.
“I watched a guy fight, named Jerry Bohlander, that I wrestled in high school. I crushed him on the mat. I wanted to give it a try,” he recalled.
“I started my first time in 1997. Tank got me a fight in (the UFC) and I fought Wes Albritton. I stopped him in it was 30 seconds, I think. And I fought Guy Mezger, who was ranked in the world. I was crushing him and they stopped it for bleeding. I went for a sloppy shot. He got me in a guillotine and I tapped and that was kind of the beginning of everything.”
That may not sound like much, but for Ortiz it was enough to turn the competitive spark inside him into a roaring fire. He went on to capture the UFC light heavyweight championship and defend it five times before eventually losing to UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture.
Looking back, Ortiz sees fighting for what it did for him. It filled a hole in his life.
“You gotta understand that I come from not much. I came from being on the street. My parents are drug addicts. Didn’t have much attention as a kid,” he stated frankly.
“It was one of those things when I got in a fight, all that attention that I loved, that I was denied from my parents, I was getting. So, it was kind of like a drug. I kind of got addicted to it.”
Yes, he lost the belt that he coveted to Couture, but that didn’t strip him of his desire to compete. In fact, it kept him going. Ortiz couldn’t walk away from MMA, or the UFC for that matter, any more than he could walk away from his own shadow.
Now, more than 14 years later, he’s back where it all began.
He stepped out of nowhere to defy the naysayers and beat the new kid on the block, Ryan Bader. He wasn’t supposed to win that fight, but he did, staving off the end of his career.
Renewed, he’ll step foot in the Octagon for the 25th time on Aug. 6 at UFC 133, where he will challenge Rashad Evans, and try to ride his Cinderella streak back to the pinnacle of the sport.
It’s an intoxicating journey, something he fully admits, though he had no idea it was a journey he ever wanted to undertake in the first place.
“This is something that I just kind of fell in love with doing.”
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