Tito Ortiz is nearly 35, but in many ways he's approaching his first birthday. On Oct. 6, Ortiz will celebrate his first year since back surgery.
This wasn't just any kind of back surgery, either. It was major, invasive, high-risk surgery. One small, seemingly inconsequential mistake, and Ortiz could have been crippled for life.
The man who in many ways is synonymous with the Ultimate Fighting Championship was more worried about whether he'd walk pain-free again and be able to play with his children rather than taking on the world's elite mixed martial artists when he decided to undergo the surgery.
But as he approaches the first anniversary of the spinal fusion performed by Dr. William Smith in Las Vegas, Ortiz is set to head to Big Bear, Calif., on Sunday to prepare for a Nov. 21 bout against Mark Coleman at UFC 106 in Las Vegas.
It's difficult to gauge whether Ortiz is happier to be pain-free for the first time in about seven years or whether he's reconciled his long, vitriolic feud with UFC president Dana White.
White used to manage Ortiz prior to partnering with Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta in 2001 to buy the UFC. Their relationship slowly deteriorated and got so ugly at the end that Ortiz was nearly not allowed to attend the postfight news conference at UFC 84 last year. Their relationship made the Billy Martin-Reggie Jackson union appear stable and loving.
Ortiz nearly signed at one point with Elite XC. Then he was closing in on a deal with Affliction. Then, it appeared as if he'd join Strikeforce.
He'd wind up anywhere, it seemed, other than in the UFC, the promotion that made him famous while he played a vital role in turning it into one of the sports world's most amazing success stories.
Seeing him fighting other than in the octagon, though, was difficult to imagine. Close your eyes and think of Derek Jeter in a Red Sox uniform and you get the idea of how hard it would be for MMA fans to conceive Ortiz anywhere but in the UFC.
Things changed around the time of UFC 100 in July. Everything was almost perfect at UFC 100, which was as much a celebration of the sport and its history as it was a fight card, except for the way that the UFC simply ignored Ortiz.
To his credit, White recognized that and engaged Ortiz in talks to rectify it. Ortiz also didn't allow the petty feud to stand in the way of making a deal that was best for him, best for the UFC and best for the sport's fans.
"At the end of the day, I thought about what had gone on over the last several years long and hard and I made a decision to do what was right," Ortiz said. "I almost went to Strikeforce. They're great people and they do a good job. But at the end of the day, who do they have? They have Fedor (Emelianenko), (Gegard) Mousasi, maybe Babalu (Sobral). That's pretty much it.
"I want to fight the elite guys in the world and I realized the only place I could do that was in the UFC. It's not about money, because I have plenty of that. And it's not about fame or ego or any of that. The fans wanted to see me fight the best guys and my body is in condition finally to be able to do it, so I decided I'd go back to the UFC and do what I do."
Ortiz said the last time he was completely healthy for a fight was prior to the first of his three matches with Ken Shamrock in 2002. From 2003-08, Ortiz fought the likes of Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin, Lyoto Machida and Rashad Evans with a back so painful it caused him to wince when he moved in his chair.
It was kind of like getting hit in the back with a sledgehammer for a half hour each day and then being asked to go out and fight.
Ortiz was 10-2 after thrashing Shamrock at UFC 40 and had successfully defended his light heavyweight championship five times. But he began having back problems prior to his bout with Couture at UFC 44 on Sept. 26, 2003, and they never really lessened. His wrestling was extremely limited and he wasn't able to shoot with the power and the explosiveness with which he'd done all his life.
At that time, the verbal war with White really picked up. White called him a "big, ugly gorilla" and suggested that Ortiz was afraid of Liddell. It got so bad at one point that White and Ortiz were going to box an exhibition on national television.
"We didn't like each other and we didn't try to hide it," White said.
The result was that, just as the sport was burgeoning and emerging from its dark ages, Ortiz was relegated to second-tier status. He went just 5-4-1 in his next 10 fights, endured numerous slings and arrows fired by White and ultimately was forced to leave the UFC.
White, though, is all about putting on the best fights he can. At heart, he's little more than a diehard fan, and he knew that a healthy Ortiz would be a problem for anyone in the world. At even 50 percent of what he could be, Ortiz nearly submitted Machida in what was billed as his UFC swan song at UFC 84 in 2008.
White flew to meet Ortiz in July and promised to end the feud. They sat down face-to-face in Ortiz' home and managed to straighten out their differences.
"Tito and I have a history that pretty much everybody knows," White said on a July 31 conference call announcing Ortiz' signing. "Tito Ortiz is still a guy that fans want to see fight. He just had back surgery and he's getting back into training. He's said his back is healing perfectly. He feels good and he's ready to compete in the 205-pound division and take a shot at the title again.
"Tito's one of those guys a lot of people love, and a lot of people love to hate. But one way or another, people give a (expletive) about him, so he's back. Tito and I have put all our differences aside and have literally squashed everything and are ready to move forward. Tito Ortiz will retire in the UFC."
With a new back and a new vigor, though, he's not ready to retire any time soon. Through all the trials and tribulations, he somehow figured it would end this way.
He figures he can fight for five more years and wants to make them count.
"The people who just started following the sport in the last couple of years haven't really seen the real Tito Ortiz," he said. "I know that. I was only a shell of what I could have been, of what I used to be. I was in agony, but I had to suck it up, because I didn't want to hear, 'Oh, there goes Tito, complaining and making excuses again.' People who have been watching the UFC for the last couple of years are going to be shocked at what they see.
"I'm in a great division with a lot of great guys, but that's a good thing. I have the opportunity to beat some of the best fighters in the history of this sport and I'll introduce myself to an entirely new set of fans. What could be better for me than that?"
- Tito Ortiz