Commentary

Finish line in view for well-traveled Ortiz

Originally Published: December 8, 2011
By Brett Okamoto | ESPN.com

Tito OrtizMike Roach/Getty ImagesWhen he does retire, Tito Ortiz doesn't plan to stray too far from the fight scene.

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. -- Here in Tito Ortiz's hometown, inside the Punishment Training Center he built (in some cases, with his own hands), the future has started to creep into the present for the former champion.

A 90-minute training session that's split between bag work, mitts and physical training comes to an end around 5 p.m. -- but the night is far from over.

The next hour Ortiz spends on the mat, coaching a children's weekly wrestling class. Immediately after, an hour-long submission wrestling class for adults is scheduled.

During a brief intermission between the two, Ortiz approaches a man standing off to the side -- the father of a high school kid who attends the gym regularly.

The purpose of the conversation is to gauge the man's feelings on his son starting an amateur career. When the father approves, Ortiz smiles. "Your son has a lot of potential," he tells him. All gym fees are waived starting now.

It's been more than 14 years since Ortiz made his first appearance in the UFC. He has two fights remaining on a six-fight contract signed in 2009. He'd like to finish out that deal and then, well -- one of the most influential mixed martial artists in the sport's history is ready to hang them up.

But even though Ortiz can't fight forever, he likes to think a second version of him is close by somewhere. To pick up where he'll leave off.

"I've done everything under the sun in mixed martial arts," Ortiz told ESPN.com. "I've done more than any mixed martial artist has ever done. All of them. Is it time for me to leave? Yeah, I think so.

"I want to use my business knowledge on a different level. There is a different generation of fighters now and I want to make the next Tito Ortiz. To show a guy the leg work it takes to become that."

Ortiz doesn't spend every waking moment reflecting on the fact his career is nearly over, but it's not made into some elephant in the room either.

He'll be 37 next month and, in more ways than one, he's tired. He says going to the gym and putting in the daily energy that's required to improve is growing more difficult.

His health, while better than it's been in years, is a factor. He's had surgeries on his neck and back; another to reconstruct his knee. In 2010, a doctor told him if he declined an operation and continued to train for a scheduled fight against Chuck Liddell, there was a chance he'd go paralyzed.

Michael Giovanni, Ortiz's strength and conditioning coach for his past three fights, is committed to getting him in the best shape possible -- but admits he takes a very conservative approach these days to do it.

"Whatever we can do to keep him injury-free is the first criteria," Giovanni said. "There are certain things we just aren't going to do. We're not doing deadlifts or anything that strains the neck. Certain explosive movements, we stay away from."

You hear that, and then you take note that Ortiz has won just one time in his last seven trips to the Octagon, and you ask: Why keep going at all, then?

A couple factors make up the answer. The first, considering it's Ortiz, shouldn't be surprising: money.

Ortiz is identified as a man who has always treated his career as a business. It's something he's never hid. Things like his well-publicized contract disputes with the UFC and the constant promoting of his Punishment Athletics brand happened because Ortiz wants to make the most money he can.

Over the course of his career, it has turned some against him. Even at a time when fighter salaries are still viewed, by some, well below what they should be, Ortiz faces accusations of not showing enough loyalty to the UFC.

[+] EnlargeTito Ortiz wins over Elvis Sinosic
Susumu NagaoBelt collector: Tito Ortiz has accomplished just about everything there is to accomplish in MMA.

Even the fighter himself admits some regret for the role he played in the spats with the UFC. But then he also remembers where he came from.

During his adolescence, both his parents were hooked on heroin. Unable to pay rent due to the habit, Ortiz's family spent nights in various hotels or in their car in nearby Santa Ana. Despite the fact that, today, he owns a house in Huntington Beach, complete with a boat and a variety of other big-boy toys, his biggest fear is going broke.

"I was watching a movie the other night and the kid was stealing for food," Ortiz said. "I remember doing that. I remember stealing steaks at the super market.

"I have nice things now. Really nice things. But tasting what broke feels like is the worst thing in the world. Feeling you're not as sufficient as another human being? I never want to feel that. I never want my kids to feel that."

The other main reason Ortiz is still going is to prove a point. That's why he also, following an upset win over Ryan Bader at UFC 132 in July, changed his nickname from "Huntington Beach Bad Boy" to "People's Champ."

In a way, that was the biggest win of his career. Following all the health issues and the string of five consecutive fights without a win, Ortiz says the UFC had publicly turned against him. With that, so had the fans. Even some of his friends.

The pride he felt proving those people wrong was, Ortiz says, may be equal to what he felt winning his first UFC title.

"I showed everybody you can come back from surgeries and prevail when no one expects you to win," Ortiz said. "That's why I changed my name."

So, Ortiz still has reasons to fight, but he's surprisingly comfortable in his acceptance the end is near. Right now, he wants to beat Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 140 on Dec. 10. After that he wants to finish out his contract -- something he says the UFC has promised him, win or lose this next fight, will happen.

As close as his career with the UFC came to ending on a string of losses -- president Dana White had announced he'd be cut following a loss to Bader -- it's easy for he and his camp to use that as motivation.

"Do you want to walk out to the pasture a winner or do you want to walk out a loser? It's his choice," said Jason Parillo, Ortiz's boxing coach and longtime friend. "You're only as good as your last fight. You might as well make it two more wins before we go."

This year has seen Liddell retire. And Randy Couture. The word has been used in the same sentence alongside names such as B.J. Penn, Matt Hughes, Wanderlei Silva and Fedor Emelianenko.

Ortiz is right there with them and, although things can change, he says two more and he'll call it a day. His young son surprised him the other day by coming into the hallway wearing all of Tito's old championship belts. For whatever reason, he said, the scene had him saying, "It's about time."

"I've always wanted to fight forever, but I'm not going to overstay my welcome," Ortiz said. "I won't disrespect the sport and continue to fight just to fight.

"I'm going to get a win [Dec. 10], fight one more time and make it 15 years competing in the UFC. It's time for me to walk away with my head still on my shoulders."

Brett Okamoto covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at bokamotoESPN.

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