Book Club: Tito Ortiz

(Our favorite Rhodes Scholar Matthew Polly returns with another article for Fightlinker. After covering an east coast EliteXC press conference and last weekend’s Affliction Banned show, his self-destructive tendancies are beginning to show: he decided to read and review Tito Ortiz’ “This is Gonna Hurt” autobiography)

My favorite movie theater moment happened during “Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones.” The opening-night audience was a bunch of thirty-somethings hoping against hope that—after “The Phantom Menace” had scarred our souls with the hot branding iron of Jar Jar Binks—Lucas had regained his mojo. As it became obvious he had not and this was yet another stain on our beloved childhood mythology you could almost hear the clenching of fists and the grinding of teeth.

The tension continued to build as Anakin (Hayden Christian) and Padme (Natalie Portman) went through their excruciating “I like sand. You don’t like sand.” courtship scenes. The dam finally burst when Anakin realized that a romantic relationship was impossible and cried out to Padme, “Are you are suffering as much as I am?”

Someone in the audience shouted, “Yes!” And the entire Ziegfeld audience burst into laughter.

I’ve been reminded of that moment ever since I bought Tito Ortiz’s autobiography: “This Is Gonna Hurt.”

“Yes,” I thought to myself for several weeks as I passed it on my nightstand. “Yes, Tito, I believe it will.”

And having forced myself to read it during a recent stint of NYC jury duty—a quadrennial requirement whose sole purpose seems to be to keep upstate New Yorkers employed in the prison system—I can confirm that it does.

“This Is Gonna Hurt” is a rehab memoir doing double duty. It is writing as a form of therapy, as Tito admits several times, and writing as a way to rehabilitate his image with MMA fans. It opens with him as a nine-year-old smoking pot, drinking alcohol, and sniffing glue and ends with him as a 32-year-old giving up pot. Neither booze nor glue is mentioned. Nor is coke, meth, PCP, ‘shrooms or any of the other substances he abused (except heroin but more on that later) and sometimes dealt as a youth when he was gang-bangin’, stealing, and spending time in jail.

Like all rehab stories there is a heart-wrenchingly sympathetic cause for his screwed-up behavior. In the Hunting Beach Bad Boy’s case when he was around eight, his hippie father upgraded from pot to heroin, hooked his mother, and then pimped her out for cash to supply their habit. As shitty MMA fathers go, Tito’s rivals Jens Pulver’s for pound-for-pound champion status, which is saying something in a sport where good dads are the rare exception rather than the rule. Personally, I think someone should put these deadbeats in the cage Roman-coliseum style. That’s a PPV I’d gladly pony up for.

That said, this narrative approach wouldn’t have been possible if Tito wasn’t already under the wing of his current lady-love, Jenna Jameson, whose best-selling memoir blamed her phenomenal porn star career (she sold her company to Playboy for a reported $65 million), intermittent crank addiction, and unstable behavior on a distant father and a sexual assault at the hands of her first boyfriend’s uncle. Alas for Tito, she had a much better ghostwriter. In form, function, and style his reads like a grade-school “What did you do the last 32 summers?” essay rather than a “one-fisted, lowbrow classic,” which is what I called Jenna’s book in a Publishers Weekly review many moons ago.

Like Jenna’s book, Tito’s isn’t solely in his own voice. His narrative is repeatedly interrupted by the three women in his life—his current girlfriend (Jenna), his mother (Joyce), and most frequently the mother of his child and ex-wife (Kristin)—who are invited to juxtapose their personal and often very differing perspectives on his tale. From a reader’s point of view, it’s like being a fly on the wall during family therapy day at the Betty Ford Clinic. From an author’s point of view, it is probably not the smartest idea to invite one’s ex-wife into one’s memoir. Not once, not twice, but thrice, Kristin says rather emphatically that Tito is “a really good liar.” If only James Frey had married so well.

So how does this practiced liar excuse his reputation as MMA’s biggest head case? (A position it should be noted that is now threatened by Rampage’s Revelations.)

According to Tito, he craves the attention, attention, attention his parents never gave him and is compelled to seek it in any way possible, either positive or negative. Growing up he wanted to be a star, a celebrity. He didn’t join the UFC because he loved fighting; he joined because it could make him famous. Right now, he doesn’t really want to be a fighter; he’d rather be an actor. On the basis of “Zombie Strippers,” he may want to keep his day job.

The attention deficit disorder defense is a clever one, because there is a grain of truth to it. Like all good liars—and addicts are remarkable liars—Tito knows that the best way to deny a major crime is to cop to the minor ones while pleading mitigating circumstances. No MMA fan expects his gladiator idols to be faithful teetotalers but he does expect courage. And so Tito freely admits to being an ADD suffering, adulterous party animal, but denies the central sin of his career, which is that for two years he ducked a fight with Chuck Liddell.

He says that he didn’t want to fight the Iceman because (a) they were friends (a friend whom he calls an “unsophisticated-trailer park kid”) and (b) the money wasn’t good enough. Dana White, who as Tito’s former manager knows him better than most, must have realized that Tito wasn’t afraid of losing to Chuck so much as he was afraid of losing his belt and the fame that went along with it, because he invented an Interim Light Heavyweight Championship belt and had Randy Couture and Liddell fight for it, which in effect stripped Tito of his title. The business of MMA is often more brutal than the sport.

And so if neediness seems a stretch to explain Tito’s brain, what then? This is no small question. Tito’s first psychiatrist refused to treat him after their first session, because he felt Tito was too crazy to be helped.

While I’m no Erik Erikson, if one were looking for Tito’s Rosebud moment, his mother becoming (in his words) “a lady of the evening” seems a good place to start. It is an accusation she denies to this day. “I never slept with men for money. I would go with men, play games with them, and then rip them off. But as far as laying down with men for money? No. I ripped them off. They left with no money but they left without me too.”

Tito’s response: “I found out years later that when my mother went with men, she would act like she was somebody else. She would play out a fantasy in her head so she could escape the reality of what she was doing.”

It is hard not to read the very painful passages where Tito watches his mother trick for his father’s treats and not think that something fundamental broke inside him. And it is hard not to read this book—with all of Tito’s crying, throwing of tantrums, and begging for a bigger allowance—and not think that in many ways he still is that nine-year-old boy, forever stunted at that maturity level, clinging to an alternate fantasy life as the Huntington Beach Bad Boy, a nickname he stole from his first UFC mentor Tank Abbott. (No wonder Randy spanked him.)

In every Tito interview I’ve seen in the past year, whenever the question of his relationship with Jenna Jameson comes up, he numbers the exact amount of time they’ve been together like an AA member counting his days of sobriety. At one point in his book, Jenna writes: “I realized that alcohol was not a good mix for him.” Later she explains that he has “abandonment issues.” It’s like the slightly older, far wealthier, and much more famous Jameson is his sponsor. (We should all be so lucky.) And given all her comments about how Tito is “good about keeping the wolves from my door,” their relationship is also like the real life remake of Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston’s “The Bodyguard.”

Unfortunately for fans, the maturation of Tito Ortiz and the gradual unification of his split personality under the tutelage of Ms. Jameson seem to have undermined his ferocity as a fighter. Let’s hope it improves him as a man.

(Matt Polly has written a bunch of stuff for a bunch of things. But the bestest thing we think he’s written – at least until his new book on MMA comes out next year – is American Shaolin)

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