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Ortiz overcame rough beginning

Tough neighborhood, drug-addicted parents and his own addictions were some of the obstacles the colorful fighter dealt with when he was younger.

December 29, 2006|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

The Huntington Beach Bad Boy doesn't mind speaking the truth.

Tito Ortiz, having completed training in Big Bear for an Ultimate Fighting Championship light-heavyweight title bout with champion Chuck Liddell, understands what drives his popularity in a sport that has riveted the attention of the 18-to-34 male demographic.

He embodies so many of their visions of single-manhood perfected.

Ortiz, 31, lives at the beach, usually beats and bloodies whoever wants to fight him, and dates former adult-film actress Jenna Jameson, whose 2004 book, "How to Make Love Like a Porn Star," became a national best-seller.

Like so many of his similarly aged peers, Ortiz is readying for a New Year's Eve party in Las Vegas.

First, however, he needs to fight Liddell at the MGM Grand on Saturday, a match that is expected to generate a $4-million live gate and produce more than 1 million pay-per-view buys -- more than any boxing match since Lennox Lewis fought Mike Tyson in 2002.

Earlier this month, inside a red barn tucked into the picturesque, snow-dusted mountains where he trains off Highway 38, Ortiz completed a training session of what he calls, "Monday bangin' " by bloodying the eyebrow of sparring partner Aaron Herosa with a powerful front kick, and then knocking down UFC fighter Kendall Grove with a sudden right-handed punch.

"Keep using that right," Grove suggested, and Ortiz smiled.

"I'm happy now," Ortiz said. "I know my life looks good. But it hasn't always been this way."

Before moving to Huntington Beach as a young teenager, Ortiz said he was raised with four older brothers in Santa Ana -- "Corner of Bristol and McFadden; you know where that is? You know how bad that is?" he asked.

He said his estranged father, Sam, and mother, Joyce, were then "hooked on heroin," and he spent a childhood "in and out of juvenile hall," while clinging to a Santa Ana street gang.

"Stealing out of cars, fights, hoodlum stuff," Ortiz said. "I was dying for attention as a kid. I fell into wrestling. I was good at it. Wrestling gave me that attention. It saved me."

Four years after moving to Huntington Beach, Ortiz became a CIF Southern Section semifinalist for Huntington Beach High in 1992. The next year, he won the Southern Section Division I championship at 189 pounds, winning MVP among the meet's higher weights, and capped his season with a sixth-place finish at the state meet.

Again, however, Ortiz found himself at a crossroads. His mother told him to move out of her home when he turned 18, he said, and he skipped enrolling in college in favor of working for a moving company while living with one of his brothers.

"I got hooked on crystal meth," Ortiz said.

Ortiz said he vividly remembers going out for drinks one Saturday night in 1994 at the Rhino Room, where he ran into Golden West College wrestling Coach Paul Herrera, a former junior college state champion who asked Ortiz what he was doing with his life.

"Nothing," was Ortiz's response. "I remember going home that night, looking into the mirror. I looked terrible. I was a lost soul.

"Coach had asked me about wrestling for him, about getting some financial aid. Monday morning, I called into work ... and quit my job."

In 1995 and 1996, Ortiz was the state junior college wrestling champion at 190 pounds, and a year later he joined UFC. He specializes in a ground-and-pound style, a fighting tactic consisting of taking an opponent to the mat using a takedown or throw, obtaining a dominant position, and then striking the opponent as often as possible. Ground and pound is also used as a precursor to attempting submission holds.

Ortiz's bad-boy moniker was gained with stunts such as wearing disparaging T-shirts in the Octagon after conquering foes, or shooting a pair of middle fingers in the opponent's direction.

"I talk a lot of smack," Ortiz said. "I'm a fan of Ali and Hulk Hogan. I try to be colorful."

His rise has paralleled that of the UFC, as Ortiz has anchored several pay-per-view shows. He won the light-heavyweight title in 2000, successfully defended it five times, then suffered back-to-back losses to Randy Couture and Liddell in 2003 and 2004, respectively. He claims a back injury hindered his performance in both fights, but now boasts full health, "like God gave me a gift."

Ortiz maintains he and former sparring partner Liddell had made a pact to never fight each other before their 2004 bout.

In the second round, Liddell landed a left hook with a thumbnail that scratched Ortiz's right eye, temporarily depriving him of vision, and allowing Liddell to clinch victory in a fight he dominated.

"I expected him to be a friend of mine -- he slept on my couch -- not to sell out to UFC," Ortiz said of Liddell. "I wasn't emotionally ready for that fight. You have to build up anger to fight a guy. Now that he's shown his true colors and took my title, I'll teach him to respect me."

Ortiz faces Liddell after consecutive knockouts of veteran fighter Ken Shamrock, the last of which outdrew Game 1 of the World Series in the key audience of males age 18-34, according to Nielsen ratings. He said separation from his wife of seven years, the success of his clothing company and the relationship with Jameson have rejuvenated him.

"She's an awesome person -- she's smart, lots of charisma," Ortiz said of Jameson. "She's become an icon. Lots of other girls have done that business and got left behind. It's survival of the fittest. That's our bond. She had a bad upbringing like me, but we're both happy now. As a fighter, it's nice to have peace of mind, and peace of body."

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lance.pugmire@latimes.com

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UFC TITLE BOUT

Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz

Saturday, 7 p.m. (pay per view)

at MGM Grand in Las Vegas

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