PCA 2015: MMA legend Tito Ortiz is up for a new fight
I wouldn't necessarily say this to his face, but Tito Ortiz is a pussycat. In actual fact, that's not really true. In a 40-minute question and answer session, kicking off the popular Team Pro breakfast series at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure this morning, the self-styled Huntington Beach Bad Boy was actually more wise owl than any other animal, but certainly not the snarling pitbull as which he has made his name.
Ortiz is best known for his bleach-blonde hair, rippling six-pack, vicious power and terrifying skills in a mixed martial arts (MMA) cage. He is in the Hall of Fame of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and is a former light heavyweight world champion. But when facing the questions of poker media and supporters at the PCA today, Ortiz, who turns 40 later this month, was reliably full of extraordinary tales from his life as a fighter, but also a dispensary for the kind of solid advice that only those at the top of their game can really know. He also didn't rip anyone's head off.
"If you're going to be a pro poker player, you have to be a pro," Ortiz says. "I fight for big money. You guys are playing for big money and you have to take your job seriously."
Ortiz is in the Bahamas this week having won a 200-player poker tournament in Los Angeles - a fundraiser for a Lupus research charity, with a PCA package as first prize. He took his shot at the PokerStars Shark Cage yesterday, and will play Day 1B of the PCA Main Event. Although he says poker remains only a hobby as he continues to focus on fighting, he draws numerous parallels between the two pursuits.
"I think it really comes down to the mindset, the mindset of not making mistakes, not getting too over-zealous on your hand," he says. "Reading people is a huge part of this and I noticed this from when I first started. Guys have good hands and they get all excited, they're calling super fast. The pros are really good and won't flinch, they'll bet, re-raise, call, calm and collected the way they do it. My fight game is the same. If I try to attack someone without having a good defence up, or thinking what's going to come next, I'll make a mistake and you can lose."
Professional athletes have often found themselves drawn to poker, finding an arena in which their competitive instincts can be still be sated even though demands on their body are less. In common with many of the top poker pros, however, Ortiz believes that good mental wellbeing starts with a body in good shape.
"The training [for MMA fighting] has to be about 80 per cent physical and the rest is completely mental," Ortiz says. "To correlate this with poker, I play a lot of online poker on PokerStars.net, I play a lot of poker and it's just repetition. You see the hands coming, you see the percentages of hands you can win and hands you can lose, and it's the same thing in fighting. It's repetition. When I play it's automatic. I'm not thinking twice. I'm not thinking about it, because when you think about it it's already too late, people are going to know what you've got.
"In fighting it's the same thing. If you think about it, it's already too late. That little window has already passed you. That's the huge correlation: repetition. Over and over and over again.
"Yesterday when I was playing in the Shark Cage, I asked Jake (Cody), 'What did you do last night?' He was like, 'I was in my room online playing poker.' I was, 'Oh, you were sharpening your game.' And he was, 'Exactly.'
"In my fighting I do the same thing. I train three months prior. For the first month it's to get your body in great shape. The second month is the sparring, the running, the weightlifting. The third month is sharpening the tools. So that when it's fight time, the fights are easy. The fights are super easy, it's the training that comes up to that point, because you've put in so much work."
The result of Ortiz's visit to the Shark Cage set will need to be kept secret until the broadcast date, but suffice to say, he put on a very good show for himself. Indeed, today at his Q&A session, he could remember specifics of plenty of the hands, talking through his thinking at various spots.
Ortiz took the hard route to the top, confessing today that he overcame a tough upbringing, during which his parents battled drug addictions that left him starving and living on the streets. But with a single-minded determination, he managed to turn his natural skills as a battler into a lucrative profession and knows how important it is to eschew the many temptations available to the successful in any discipline.
He revealed, for instance, that he has agreed with his oldest son to allow him to become a professional fighter only after he has gained a master's degree, and also ran through his punishing training schedule for the three months before fights.
"I have three months and I'm on lockdown," he says. "I take care of my kids, make sure they get fed, dressed, go to school. I come home take a two hour nap, get up, go to the gym, I'm at the gym from 11am until about 7pm and then I make sure I get home, make sure my boys go to sleep, then I do a run, do my lift. I come home, make sure I'm asleep by 11pm. That's my training session. That's what I do. Three months, six days a week. That's my job. I don't go out to clubs, I don't drink, I don't smoke. I don't have anything extra-curricular."
The audience also drew breath when Ortiz ran through the various injuries he has suffered in career spent almost entirely at the top of one of the most demanding sports in the world. "I've been fighting for 17 years, and I've had ACL replacement on both knees," he says. "I've had back surgery. I've had L45 S-bone fused. I've had C6, C7 fused in my neck. I've had disc replcement in C3, C4. I've had surgeries that athletes don't ever come back from, in any sport, and compete. And it comes back down to the mindset. What you believe you can do, you can do. If you think you're done, you're done. If you can believe in yourself no more, you're not going to be able to do it."
The poker players of the Bahamas are unlikely to face the physical torments endured by Ortiz, but mental strains can be tough in this game. Players need to deal with down-swings brought on by bad luck or poor judgment, requiring them to refocus and redouble efforts to play to the best of their ability.
"So many people don't think they have self worth themselves, because they don't have enough money, or they don't have a great job," Ortiz says. "Or maybe they have a messed up knee or something, they think they can't go any further. Then all of a sudden, when they start believing they can make these things happen, it's a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you believe in it, you make it happen, you make it work, and it happens. You look back on it and you think, 'Oh, that wasn't so hard.' But in the beginning, it's hard. You've got to go through some trials and tribulations to become great."
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