May 27, 2010

Despite numerous surgeries and setbacks, Tito Ortiz said Thursday he remains intent on reclaiming a UFC title and competing until he's nearly 40 years old. If Ortiz manages to pull off a feat few think possible, he'll owe that to Dr. William Smith of Las Vegas.

On March 15, some three and a half weeks after Ortiz, 35, was prematurely dismissed from Spike TV's "The Ultimate Fighter 11" for revealing a badly injured neck would prevent him from fighting rival Chuck Liddell in June, the former UFC light heavyweight champion had his second surgery under Smith in 18 months.

With just five days of filming remaining on the mixed martial arts reality series, Ortiz informed UFC president Dana White that doctors warned him one bad landing could lead to paralysis.

"I wasn't going to take that chance," Ortiz said. "That's when I went to Dana and I told him the doctor thinks I need surgery and it's pretty much mandatory."

The show aired Wednesday, leaving Ortiz free to address the issue for the first time after repeated assertions to media that he was healthy. The charade ended on April 12, when Zuffa officially announced Rich Franklin, not Ortiz, would fight Liddell in Vancouver at UFC 115.

Following a session of sparring with his team of fighters four weeks into shooting of the show, Ortiz says he awoke from a catnap and "couldn't walk. It scared the [expletive] out of me. I knew there was something really wrong."

Dealing with severe back pain for seven years until Smith performed a new procedure called Extreme Lateral Interbody Fusion, Ortiz recognized rehab on his neck, which he said was injured last October while training to fight Forrest Griffin, wasn't the answer. A month prior to falling on points to Griffin at UFC 106, Ortiz said he was slammed on his head, rendering his arms and legs "completely numb" for a minute and a half. Ortiz returned to the gym a week and a half later only to suffer what he claims was a broken orbital bone seven days before the November fight, which he contends he has no memory of.

Upon his return to the UFC after signing a new contract, Ortiz agreed to participate on TUF 11 opposite Liddell. He chose not to back out following the loss to Griffin in hopes that swelling, pain and headaches would subside. He said he could not train between the November bout with Griffin and the start of filming in Las Vegas in mid-January.

"I've healed before and I thought I'd heal," he said. "It just got worse. My arms and legs got numb. Just really gnarly, scary things came about. I thought possibly my career would be ended."

When he couldn't get off the couch, Ortiz (15-7-1) decided he needed to know what the problem was. Smith and other specialists determined he couldn't fight Liddell. The surgery, which Ortiz filmed and uploaded online, lasted three hours while Smith fused the fighter's C6 and C7 vertebrae to artificial bone and plates. It will be six months before the fuse takes hold, and Ortiz could lose some range of motion.

The UFC, which has Ortiz locked up for another five fights, was "very supportive" and covered the cost of surgery. "I'm pretty thankful," he said. "I have no more headaches and no more numbness."

Ortiz faces one more month of rehabilitation before he can return to the gym "full bore." He plans on fighting by October or November, hopefully against Liddell. "He says in interviews that if I want to come back to the UFC and fight, I got to fight him first," Ortiz said of his rival. "I'm game. Let's do it. I have no problem with that. Hopefully he doesn't get knocked out and have to retire after this one." Until then, the former champion, who is a dismal 0-3-1 since Dec. 30, 2006, will focus on the July opening of his new gym in his hometown of Huntington Beach, Calif.

Ortiz was the subject of controversy last month after being arrested April 26 on suspicion of domestic violence against his girlfriend, former porn star Jenna Jameson. The Orange County Prosector's office declined to press charges. Ortiz has returned home, where he lives with Jameson and their twin toddler sons.

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