Tito Ortiz last held a world championship 12 years ago. It's 2015 and "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy" turned self-proclaimed "People's Champion" angles to become the first fighter to hold belts in both the UFC and Bellator.
It all hinges on Ortiz (18-11-1) blocking Bellator's light heavyweight kingpin Liam McGeary (10-0) from the Brit's first title defense. Ortiz's underdog quest at 40-years-old to topple the 32-year-old champ goes down at Bellator 142/DYNAMITE 1—a joint mixed martial arts and Glory kickboxing show— inside the SAP Center in San Jose, Calif., live on Spike TV (9p.m. EST/6p.m. PST) Saturday night.
Ortiz-McGeary headlines the whole combat sports crossover, marking the eighteenth time the polarizing figure that is Tito Ortiz has held top billing.
For Ortiz to dethrone McGeary would extend his already extensive light heavyweight history. Ortiz's five title defenses at 205-pounds stood as the divisional record for seven years until Jon "Bones" Jones busted the mark in 2013. The year prior, Ortiz was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame before his 27th trip and final trip to the Octagon. He slipped from the million-buy pay-per-view against then-champ and rival Chuck Liddell to end 2006 to a 1-7-1 record on his way out of the UFC in summer 2012. Then he "retired" for two years until he resurfaced in Bellator. In the promotion's circular cage, Ortiz secured the first back-to-back wins on his ledger since 2006. That is a critical year for Ortiz ahead of McGeary because it's the last time he prepared for a five-round fight.
We caught up with a candid Ortiz on being a significant underdog, how being a champion seems like lifetimes ago, and why he still fights five years after he imagined he'd be retired.
(Edited for length and clarity).
Fightland: You're talking ahead of this fight, everyone loves a good comeback story. What number comeback for Tito Ortiz would this be?
Tito Ortiz: Wow, this would be, the number one comeback, because this is a comeback like no other. I don't want to look past the fight but in my mind I know I'm going to win.
My life's been rebuilt over and over—my mind, my body. I had a great camp, a 12-week camp for this fight.
This is my fight right now. It's a point where this is: do or die.
I know you were pushing Bellator CEO Scott Coker for this fight. He said you cornered him asking for it. So when he told you that it was going to happen, that you'd be fighting for the belt, what was your reaction?
I had already started my camp...I believe this is going from when I saw Liam fight Emanuel Newton—I knew it was going to happen, I just had to push a little weight around and make it happen.
It's just one of those things I was mentally ready for it...I just had to have my body follow for the last 12 weeks.
This is the hardest camp I've had since—gosh—at least 2006.
The odds point to it being a comeback since you're nearly a four-to-one underdog. As someone with your stature in the sport, does it feel odd to be the underdog or is it something you've become accustomed to in the last few years? And is it a source of motivation for you?
I love being in the underdog. Everyone loves an underdog story. When I fought Ryan Bader, I was a six-to-one underdog. I stopped him in two minutes and thirty-five seconds. When I fought Alexander Shlemenko, I was a five, six-to-one underdog, I stopped him in two minutes and twenty-seven seconds. I'm going to make this a third. I have less pressure on me.
He has all the pressure on his shoulders now. He said he's going to dominate. He said he's going to knock me out, pick me apart, not many fighters have done that in my whole career. So we'll see if he can do that or if he bit off more than he can chew.
Describe your life when you were the 205-pound champ and everyone wanted a piece of you.
Being the 205-pound champ at the time, I really didn't care who they put in front of me—I fought. It was a fact of wanting to be the best fighter I could be. As the sport grew and got bigger and bigger and bigger, the more money that was being made, I was making the same amount of money. I wasn't making much at all. And truthfully, it was about money then. I see guys making 30, 40 million dollars and I was making $100,000. It didn't make sense.
I tried putting my foot down and tried to stand my ground. I was looked down upon. I was talked down upon by my old organization. Now, it's not about the money. It's not about the financial side of it. Right now, it's just about being the world champion and conquering what I know I can conquer.
The hard work's already done. I already shined my bike up for a Sunday drive, after Saturday night's fight.
Did worrying about money impact your performances as a fighter and now that it's behind you, do you believe you'll get a better performance out of yourself?
I think so. Once I fought, once I stepped in the cage, it was never about the money. That was the last thing on my mind. It was about going in and getting my hand raised, but prior to that, leading up to the fights, negotiation tactics my former employer would do to me were low blows. Something a promoter shouldn't do. It'd get me off my game. Now I don't have to worry about that.
[Bellator] treats me with respect and that's the only thing fighters have is respect.
Does being the champ seem like a world away now or just yesterday?
It seems like two lifetimes ago. I've lived three lives since then. I've learned a lot. It's made me the man I am today. I have thick skin.
Some situations in life, in general, that I've been through as a champion, not as a champion, a bad relationship I went through, I've been through so much, it made my skin thick. I'm a totally different person. I'm grounded.
I don't know dude—it's a different lifetime.
You've done so much in this sport. And this is a very unique show Bellator is putting on with the dual kickboxing element, the one-night light heavyweight tournament and also a throwback to Japan having Lenne Hardt do the fighter introductions. You never got to fight in Japan [PRIDE], so is this something you look forward to as a new experience? And how important is it to you to try to elevate Bellator by bringing in viewers and delivering as a main eventer?
I'm excited. I've been a main event fighter for a long time, almost my whole career. Even in the UFC, there was a heavyweight championship fight before as the co-main event when I was the main event against Vitor Belfort. I've given a lot to the sport and I'm very thankful for my fans because if it wasn't for my fans, I wouldn't be where I am today.
When you were 27-years-old, did you imagine yourself fighting for the world title at 40, or did you imagine chilling on your boat well into retirement at this point?
[Laughs] I thought I'd be done by now. I think my ego gets in the way a bit. I should say shame on me. After all the surgeries I've been through, I should be done. But I'm motivated. I'm here to inspire a lot of people. Sometimes you can push forward, push through the pain to better yourself.
When I was 27, I thought I'd be done by the age of 35, but I'm making the best out of it. I watched Randy Couture win a heavyweight world title at the age of 40. I'm going to do the same thing at the age of 40 and win a light heavyweight world title.
Obviously McGeary has the belt and you want to be champ, but you demanding the fight from Scott Coker, is that because you see something as a veteran that you can exploit in the champ? The way Couture did against Tim Sylvia.
Yeah, to the tee. I watched everything that he was doing against Emanuel Newton and I can capitalize on it. The positions he was giving up were my strengths, where I finish fighters. He's never fought anybody like me. On Saturday night, he's going to get his first taste of it.
You keep saying 2006. Respectfully Tito, it's been nine-years since you prepared for a 25-minute fight. Against Bonnar in a three-round fight, you didn't seem fresh in the end, and Liam McGeary is a younger, larger, more dynamic opponent. Talk me through what makes you confident you'll be ready for 25 minutes.
Well you know, when you do stadium runs for 25 minutes non-stop and you're able to come back and spar for 25 minutes non-stop, come back and wrestle for 25-minutes non-stop, and jiu-jitsu also, you're doing that five days a week, doing that for one night isn't going to be a problem.
When I fought Bonnar, I was half the man I am right now. I could literally see half myself. I had a detached retina and still fought. I'm a totally different person. I'm glad I fought the way I did against Stephan Bonnar because that's how good Liam thinks I really am. I'm going to surprise him. He's going to say, 'Holy shit, who is this guy in front of me?' I'm going to be aggressive. I'm putting on a show man.
McGeary is undefeated. This is a massive opportunity for him to have a first title defense against a UFC Hall of Famer. Why is now his time to taste defeat?
It's going to be a learning curve for him...I'm going to expose his weaknesses and do what I need to do to win.
I know you're big on positive mental attitude and visualization. Have you thought about bringing the belt home to your kids? Because when you were champ before, they weren't even born yet.
They weren't born yet. My oldest Jacob was born. He got to hold the first couple of them. He got to go to school and show the UFC belts. This Bellator belt now, I want to do the same thing for my twin boys, show it to them and have them take it to school. I think that'd be really cool. My boys, 'Dad, we knew you could do it.' They are at the age now, where they understand the competition of it because they wrestle themselves, six-years-old.
Like I said, right now, a belt don't really matter to me. What matters to me is getting my hand raised. That's what I've been working toward as hard as I can.
I'm actually kind of nervous for once. I haven't been nervous in a long time, but I guess that's when you know you're ready.
A big part of your persona is your trademark flame shorts. Your old rival, Chuck Liddell, had the opposite with ice trunks. Now that the UFC has Reebok-mandated gear where the fighter can't choose their own look, how much do you see that impacting the fighter and fan's ability to connect?
It's going to impact them a whole bunch. All of a sudden the guys will be cookie-cutter. All the guys are Power Rangers. It's crazy. I can't imagine back in the day when the "Iceman" couldn't have ice shorts or I couldn't have flame shorts. It takes away the identity of the fighters.
That's their loss. That's why Bellator is going to gain so much from it and they have already.
Regardless of a win or a loss Saturday night, will you play the Mayweather card and ride off into the sunset? If not, would you then entertain the Frank Shamrock rematch you were offered? Do you see yourself fighting King Mo or Phil Davis or whoever it is that wins the one-night tournament?
Right now, all I'm thinking about is getting that world title. After I get the belt around my waist, I'll worry about who is after.
I don't care about anything else right now. I'll have to wait until after Saturday night to make that decision.
Ortiz asked to hear from all the fans on his Twitter @TitoOrtiz and with the hashtag #OrtizChamp2015
Danny Acosta is a SiriusXM Rush (channel 93) host and contributor. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @acostaislegend