Tito Ortiz wanted to fight. The Golden West College freshman watched the early UFCs and was even helping prepare Tank Abbott for his bouts in the Octagon, so he was intrigued watching what was going on in this newest of sports.
Then he saw his high school wrestling coach and another one of his training partners with Abbott - Paul Herrera – fight Gary Goodridge.
That UFC 8 bout in February 1996 only lasted 13 seconds, with Herrera earning a permanent place on the highlight reel of most devastating knockouts thanks to a series of flush elbows from “Big Daddy.”
All of a sudden, this whole UFC thing didn’t seem to be that hot of an idea – at least to Ortiz’ girlfriend at the time.
“Kristin told me, ‘I don’t want what happened to Paul happen to you,’” Ortiz recalled. “But Paul was more of a talker. He didn’t want to put in the work and I told her, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll make sure I put in all the work. I won’t take any shortcuts.’ And that’s always been my motto. Put in the work and you’ll get the best out of it.”
The 21-year-old Ortiz was willing to do that work, supplementing his training with Abbott and Herrera with time on the mats learning jiu-jitsu from Cleber Luciano. It was a crash course in MMA, and the future “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” was loving it. How much did he love it? So much that he was willing to fight for free.
“I was on scholarship at Golden West College, so I couldn’t accept any prize money,” he said. “So I fought just to challenge myself. I was young, I was hungry and I was learning. I trained maybe six months with Tank and I did a little jiu-jitsu with Cleber Luciano out of Huntington Beach. I put on a gi and he would tap me in 30 seconds, then a minute, then a minute and a half, then five minutes, then we’re going 10, 15, 20 minutes and he couldn’t tap me. Then I started understanding the sport and I kept learning. I kept my mind open and I was able to learn super quick.”
All along, he asked Abbott to help get him a fight, and he soon got his wish: an alternate bout on the UFC 13 card on May 30, 1997. If he beat Wes Albritton, he wasn’t guaranteed anything, but if someone fell out of that night’s lightweight (under 200 pounds) tournament, he would be able to fight again.
The bottom line? He was going to fight. And he couldn’t wait. Of course, it wasn’t something he was advertising around school, but he did tell his coach of his plans.
“I let my coach Dale Deffner know, and he said, ‘You can’t be doing that,’” laughed Ortiz, who did soothe his coach’s nerves by letting him know that he wasn’t taking a check for the fight. What he didn’t let anyone know that he planned on a little pre-fight test before he made the trip to Augusta, Georgia.
“Three weeks before the fight, I did a Pankration fight in Rosemead High School,” Ortiz said. “Nobody knew. UFC didn’t know, Paul didn’t know, Tank didn’t know. But I went to test myself.”
Eight minutes later, Ortiz had fought to a draw with his opponent, but the future UFC Hall of Famer considered it a win.
“His face was so bloodied because all you could do was open-hand slaps,” Ortiz said. “He never caught me in anything, and I fought for free just to test myself and to see if I was going to be ready for it.”
Ortiz felt ready for it at the time. Then came fight week in Augusta.
“Talk about being afraid and not confident and just being in survival mode,” he said. “I remember cutting down to 199 pounds, which was really hard for me. I remember cutting weight and looking over and seeing Randy Couture running on the treadmill. I knew who Randy was and I really looked up to him. He’s fighting here too? I hope I don’t fight him.”
Couture was in that night’s heavyweight tournament, and he won it with victories over Tony Halme and Steven Graham. And while he and Ortiz would eventually meet, it wasn’t on this night. On May 30, 1997, it was Ortiz and Wes Albritton.
“As a young kid, I was in something I thought I was at the level of, but I was over my head, I think,” he said. “I was confident in myself to an extent, but I was learning so much in such a short amount of time, and I got thrown to the wolves super fast. But I was able to adapt to those situations.”
That meant trouble for Albritton.
“I knew nothing about Wes Albrittion,” said Ortiz. “All I’m seeing is some karate guy with a mustache, and the only thing I’m thinking is, ‘Make sure you protect yourself.’”
They didn’t get too much time to get acquainted, as it took just 31 seconds for Ortiz to stop Albritton. Then Enson Inoue was forced out of the tournament due to an injury suffered in his win over Royce Alger, and Ortiz got the call to the finals against Guy Mezger. Intimidated? Not Tito Ortiz.
“Here’s my chance,” Ortiz said. “I’m fighting against a seasoned fighter. Guy Mezger was a future King of Pancrase and he’s been fighting for years. He knew the game. He knew what submissions were, he knew how to strike. I was a wrestler who had wrestling and streetfighting skills, that was it. But I went out and gave it my all.”
Ortiz had Mezger in trouble and nearly stopped him, but a controversial restart after a Mezger cut was examined gave the veteran the time to regroup and get a fresh start. And he made the most of it.
“He (Mezger) hit me with the right hand,” recalled Ortiz. “I went to shoot with a long ostrich neck, I didn’t know what a guillotine was and I found out that night.”
Just like that, in three minutes, Tito Ortiz’ first night as a mixed martial artist was over.
“I was like, ‘Okay, back to school. Let me get my degree.’ I did my best, I tried as hard as I possibly could and I failed, but I went back in the gym and got out of guillotines left and right.”
It’s safe to say that Ortiz got that degree. In 1999, he avenged his loss to Mezger, and a year later, he was the UFC light heavyweight champion. Ortiz successfully defended that title five times and his fights with the likes of Frank Shamrock, Ken Shamrock, Wanderlei Silva, Chuck Liddell, Couture, Vitor Belfort and Forrest Griffin earned him a spot in the UFC Hall of Fame.
Not bad for someone who just wanted to have some fun. And to this day, that attitude never changed.
“When it’s fight time, it’s never about the money, ever,” said Ortiz, 43. “During camp, yes. I get paid to train. But I fight for free. That’s the way my mindset has been since Day One.”