At 34 years old, and out of action for almost 18 months, Tito Ortiz doesn't miss a beat during UFC 106 fight promotion. The former UFC light-heavyweight champion still finds ways to needle his opponent, still has no problem reciting his resume, still talks about his big dreams.
But there's a change, too. There's much more nuance and subtlety in his delivery today. Perhaps changed by a nasty divorce with the UFC, followed by back surgery and a long rehabilitation, followed by a kiss-and-make-up with Dana White, Ortiz -- at least for now -- is a quieter, more mature version of himself. That is a change that he hopes will contrast sharply with his athletic performance. Before he was talking loudly, but getting no results; he hasn't won a fight since 2006. Now, he speaks more softly, but trusts his body to deliver the real statement.
"There's going to be a belt in my future for sure," Ortiz told FanHouse in a recent interview. "It's 'Dream it, work it, win it.' That's the dream comeback. But it's one fight at a time, and I don't want to look past this one."
Ortiz's first step back on the comeback trail began on Oct. 6, 2008, when he was operated on by Dr. William Smith in Las Vegas. Ortiz underwent a surgery similar to the one performed on fellow UFC fighter Nate Quarry in 2006. In fact, Ortiz spoke with Quarry before agreeing to the procedure, which addressed three injured vertebrae.
"I was terrified," he said. "There was a possibility of me never competing again. I hope it helps people understand how important fighting is to me. I could have just went on and continued my clothing company Punishment Athletics, did stores and gyms and made a good living, or I could take a big risk to get surgery done."
Standing across the cage from him at UFC 106 will be a man he met once before: Forrest Griffin. The two first competed in April 2006. It was Griffin's fourth official UFC fight, and Ortiz won a close, split-decision. In the time since, it's been suggested that Griffin was too green at that point in his career to face such an experienced veteran. It must be pointed out, however, that the fight was the 15th of Griffin's career.
Also in the time since, Griffin won and then lost the UFC light-heavyweight championship, making this a battle of two ex-kingpins desperate to work their way back towards the top. In the three-and-a-half years since, a lot has happened to both men, but Ortiz sees little different in his foe.
"I really don't see that much of a change in him," he says. "I think Forrest is a guy who is often in the right place at the right time. He works hard, and hard work usually pays off. He's taking the fight on six week's notice, but he's a gym rat who's always in shape. It's just me making sure my timing is on, and that I push the fight."
As far as how the action will flow, Ortiz is unsure. He trusts his back, and believes the explosiveness that marked his takedowns in the early part of his career has returned. He also believes there are questions about Griffin's durability that will be put to the test.
"I'm going to give Forrest all he can handle," he says. "I think I'm a lot stronger and faster, and his head is softer than mine. He's been knocked out in his last couple fights (against Rashad Evans and Anderson Silva), and I've never been knocked out in my career. Yes, Chuck Liddell stopped me, but I was never unconscious. Let me knock on wood that that's never going to happen... I hope he comes in shape, because if he doesn't, he's going to get hurt."
The last line comes out with a pause, and almost as an obligation.
Ortiz has always been known as much for trash talk and self-promotion as his in-ring success. It almost makes you wonder if the "Huntington Beach Bad Boy" character that was once upon a time omnipresent, is now only for the cage.
"I think so," he says. "I've grown up a lot. You'll see the 'Bad Boy' in the cage no matter what. I'll do what it takes to win. It's survival of the fittest there. But outside of the cage, I want to be more of a role model. Forrest recently said, 'I don't want to be a role model,' but I do. I think it's my job as a fighter. This has grown into a huge stage, and I want to teach these kids to get educated."
The change comes largely from his personal growth. In March 2009, Ortiz and his girlfriend Jenna Jameson had twin boys, Jesse and Journey (he also has a seven-year-old son, Jacob, from his first marriage). Because of his back injury, it marked the first extended, uninterrupted time he could spend with his family in years.
After being thrust into his Big Bear training camp again, that time came to a close. He went from seeing Jacob every weekend and seeing Jenna and the twins every day to phone calls. In that, Ortiz reconnected with what he was fighting for.
"It's been really hard," he says. This camp has been really challenging for me mentally and emotionally because I'm not with them. I've been with them and available to them for the last 18 months. Now, all I do is eat, sleep and train. It's difficult, but I have to train hard to provide for my family. I have three kids to feed, and I want to make sure they have nothing to worry about in their futures. When I was a kid, I had nothing. I can't have that for them."
Now, less than a week away from his return to the cage, the training is winding down, and Ortiz will return to a place in which he's reached the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. He's been loved and hated. And for the first time in a long time, he has no idea how he'll be received by the crowd.
Will he be a returning hero or villain?
"I'm expecting cheers, but you never know," he says. "Forrest is fighting in his town, but I've been fighting there longer than him. I hope there will be a lot of cheers, but either way, I'm excited. Whether it's cheers or boos, I'm going to fight with a lot of heart and a lot of determination."
Told that the betting line has swung in Griffin's favor -- in essence, that at least bettors doubted he'd return with a victory -- Ortiz finally showed the fire that marked the "Bad Boy."
"I love it," he said. "Now that makes me excited. I love to be the underdog. I came from the streets and was never supposed to succeed in life, but I did it. I became successful. Keep betting against me, because I love proving people wrong."