Despite appearances to the contrary, Tito Ortiz is not about to lose his competitive edge anytime soon. The former light heavyweight world champion and UFC Hall of Famer may be into his fifth decade – he was 40 on January 23rd – but his appetite for confrontation and his desire to compete at the very highest level remain as ferocious as ever. After 17 years in the game, he’s still in there fighting.
The man they used to call the Huntington Beach Bad Boy is in danger of growing up a little. He is talking seriously about retiring from the sport as the inevitable passage of time takes its toll on a body that endured a litany of injuries that would have ended the career of a lesser fighter years ago.
Broken and fused bones, disc replacements in his back and neck, ligament replacements in both knees, and countless other minor cuts and bruises – too many to mention – all combine with the passage of time to force even this most single minded of athletes to consider life beyond the cage. Happily for Ortiz, he does not have to fight for the money. For him, the motivation is, as it has always been, about the intensity of competition and the competitive buzz that comes from putting everything into a contest in which everything – even the possibility of serious injury – is on the line.
Ortiz has made good money from his time in the cage. He started a management company in 2012 and now has a successful brand of his own to promote and oversee. That, inevitably, is a draw on his energies. Punishment Athletics offers clothing and is characteristically bold. But is seems that the commercial cut and thrust of business is not – in itself – enough to satisfy Ortiz’s competitive hunger.
Ortiz has learned a lot from his time in the cage. His extraordinary level of achievement over the years is testament to that. But whilst the physical talents that have kept him at the top of the sport are clearly a large part of that, the mental side of combative close encounters is something that Ortiz is happy to acknowledge as well.
The poker story
Like many sportsmen and women who spend a lot of time on the road, Ortiz is a regular poker player. And he’s good at it. That sharp competitive instinct isn’t something that you can simply turn on and off, it seems. And poker is a game that rests on precisely that appetite for competition.
Ortiz won a seat at the prestigious PokerStars Caribbean Adventure back in January and was widely praised for the quality of his play. It turns out, Ortiz’s idea of playing is as intense as most of us get on a good working day at the office. To say he takes it seriously would be an understatement. Ortiz earned his seat at the event after winning a 200-player tournament staged in LA. During the publicity for the event, which took place in the Bahamas, Ortiz was happy to describe just how much of his poker is informed by the lessons he has learned during all those years in the cage.
Preparation is key
First and foremost, you will not be surprised to learn that a fighter who is famously intense in his preparations for a fight sees preparation as the key to everything that happens once the competition is under way. In the same way that reps in the gym build muscle strength, “repetition, repetition, repetition” is what he sees as the key to being able to compete with the precision and speed of instinct, rather than having to stop, assess and consider what the options are at any one point in time.
In a fight, even the most split-second hesitation can be terminal. In a game of poker, the same failure to react immediately, without allowing your opponents the chance to start to read your indecision, or letting yourself get distracted by alternatives, can spell disaster.
Reading the tells
Ortiz has spent a lot of time watching for even the most subtle of signals from his opponents so it is not surprise that he is proving to be quite adept at spotting the ‘tells’ that spill out in the form of other players’ body language during a game. If you’ve spent almost two decades spotting the trigger for a roundhouse kick at your head, someone getting a bit twitchy over a pair of queens is about as obvious as a song and dance routine.
But, as with his time in combat, that keen appreciation of what the other guy is thinking is only worth a spit because the rest of the equation is in place. Ortiz’s famously Spartan three-month build-up to a fight finds its counterpart in his continual refinement of his poker strategy online, where, of course, those tells are not part of the deal.
Putting in the hard yards
Knowing how the odds fall with every turn of a card represents the poker equivalent of all those reps in the gym or miles on the treadmill. In fighting, they would talk about the way physical and mental preparation is harnessed in the service of what boxers call ring-craft. In poker, the experience to know how a hand is likely to play out comes from the same dedicated time-served application. Repetition, repetition, repetition. There is no substitute – and the Huntington Beach Bad Boy knows that better than most.
A rare talent
Psychologists talk about the ten thousand hours it takes for a talent to be turned into something really awesome. What they don’t tell you is that being able to dedicate yourself to one thing for that amount of time is a rare talent in itself.
Having grown up dirt poor and having worked his way up to where he is today by making the absolute most of what he has at his disposal – physically, mentally and in just about every other dimension you could think of as well – Ortiz is living testimony to the power of that ability. He may be moving towards the finale of what has been a glittering career, but don’t be surprised if he starts to forge a new one on the poker circuit in the years to come. One thing is for sure, he most definitely has the talent for it – not to mention that indomitable competitive instinct.