Tito Ortiz and Rampage Jackson walked into a conference room at Spike TV on a Tuesday morning and were immediately drawn to two action figures in the middle of the table -- of themselves.
Without hesitating, Jackson grabbed his action figure and put it on top of Ortiz's. "This is what it's going to look like on November 2nd," he crowed, referring to the Pay-Per-View Bellator matchup the two are fighting in.
After Jackson had finished taking pictures of his creation, Ortiz began rearranging the figures into the way he hopes the fight will turn out. They both chuckled -- after all, despite preparing to fight each other, they remain good friends. And if the large amount of fans they’re hoping tune in do so, regardless of who wins, they’re bound for a big payday.
Ortiz and Jackson have been the two of the biggest names in mixed martial arts since the sport's early days. Ortiz’s first big fight was UFC 13 in 1997. Jackson began his career in Japan’s Pride in 2001, before joining the quickly growing UFC to much fanfare in 2006.
Like many fighters, they have since split with the league, which arguably made MMA a highly profitable mainstream sport, and gone off to new ventures. The latest is with Bellator, a league that is broadcast on Spike, and Ortiz and Jackson say it has given them bigger cuts of the pie and treated fighters better than the UFC.
"It's all about fighters," Ortiz said. "Fans want to see fights -- that's as plain and simple as it is. There's the best guys in the world in Bellator. UFC made a machine, a PR machine, which is great, which has gotten the sport to where it is. But it's us fighters who have done the interviews and done the fighting and educated the fans about where the sport has truly gone.”
Ortiz said he also switched over to Bellator because it offered him more of an opportunity to pursue other avenues in his career like acting and his clothing line. (He left UFC after losing six of his last seven bouts). Jackson, who also stepped away from UFC earlier this year, lost his last three matches. The bout on PPV not only seems like a fresh chance to make some more money, but a chance to prove they're not too old to compete. The response they said they've heard from their old UFC boss, Dana White, was expected.
"As he does to every other fighter that loses or does everywhere else, we're washed up, we’re old, we’re irrelevant,” Ortiz added. "How can I be irrelevant if I’m trending on Twitter?"
"Dana just gets jealous because he wants to be a superstar, he's not a fighter," he added. "He's just the guy pushing the pens."
"Dana's a hater,” Jackson added. “You can’t listen to what haters say.”
White, if he does think that, isn't the only one. On popular MMA wrestling message boards the thought is the same as White's: "Maybe some years ago this would be a PPV worthy fight but to be honest it ain't even a free tv worthy fight with these two over the hill fighters," one commenter wrote, summing up the opinion on Sherdog.com.
Regardless of the pushback from some entrenched fans, the fight can be great news for both Ortiz, Jackson and Bellator: less enthusiastic MMA fans may also be more likely to recognize Jackson and Ortiz's name, whether from their careers or off-the-mat activities. And their incredible public relations push which mirrors more of a movie release than a fight can only help Bellator in the future (they told a reporter they've done nearly two dozen interview in two days, in addition to appearances at the VMA awards).
Jackson and Ortiz said they've been encouraged by the response from fans, the attention they get on the street and their ability to bring old-school MMA, which Jackson defines as less strategy and points and more submissions.
"MMA has changed," Jackson said. "It's evolved so fast and it's become very boring, and it's up to us to spice things up."
For two people who seem incredibly close friends, the idea of pummeling each other's faces and bodies and choking each other may seem strange. But Jackson said he thinks it will bring them closer together.
"It's weird to fight my friend the way it's weird to play one-on-one basketball with your friend,” Jackson explained. “We're fighters. Yeah, it sucks me and Tito have to have the cage locked behind us that day, but we're man enough to deal with it."