TOWN GREEN IS one of the most charming parks in Ladera Ranch, California.
Situated near the Mercantile West shopping center, the park grounds boast a gazebo, a rose garden, a military memorial, and an old California oak tree surrounded by a black wrought-iron fence. If you stand in front of the magnificent tree and direct your eyes on the center of the main trunk, you’ll even notice a collection of branches in the shape of a heart.
For many Ladera Ranch residents, Town Green is a refuge from city life—a sanctuary for those looking to carve themselves out a space within nature’s serenity. Yet on September 19, 2020, the lush oasis was transformed into a rallying point for far-right figures united behind President Donald Trump.
Known as the Orange County Title of Liberty, the rally brought together “like-minded patriots” to celebrate the incumbent president, the First Amendment, the military, law enforcement, and the re-opening of business and schools across California in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Find comfort in our numbers, and exhibit strength at the same time!” read the Facebook invitation.
Hundreds gathered to listen to a list of infamous speakers, most notably: Lenka Koloma, a California-based anti-masker behind the Freedom to Breathe Agency (FTBA) and the fraudulent “mask exemption cards” denounced by the U.S. Department of Justice; Mark McDonald, a child psychiatrist and member of a group calling itself America’s Frontline Doctors and who had previously appeared on Alex Jones’s NewsWars website and claimed that “if all Americans had access to hydroxychloroquine, the pandemic would essentially end in about 30 days.” Also on the roster was Ken Williams Jr., a member of the Orange County Board of Education, which plans to sue Gov. Gavin Newsom over the decision to require purely online learning for counties on the state coronavirus watchlist.
Nestled within the cast of controversial conservatives was another notable figure: a mixed martial arts fighter by the name Tito Ortiz.
After being introduced—by a large man dressed in a MAGA hat and a black t-shirt emblazoned with a picture of Smoky Bear along with the words, “Only You Can Prevent Socialism”—Ortiz appeared in a three-piece navy blue suit, sans tie, that accentuated his muscular frame. He grabbed the microphone and roared, “Wassup, Orange County! Each and every one of you that carries an American flag, a Trump flag: we have a voice and let’s keep this voice going.”
After spending the better part of the last two decades as a prizefighter, Ortiz had traded in his MMA gloves for a shot at glory in the U.S. political arena.
As one of 15 candidates running for three open seats on the Huntington Beach City Council, Ortiz spent the majority of his 10-minute speech on his life story. He painted a tragic mosaic of a past marked by drug-addicted parents, an impoverished childhood, a troubled adolescence filled with his own bouts with drugs, and finally, his eventual salvation in the form of athletic competition.
Ortiz, 45, is best known for his stint with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, an MMA company based in Las Vegas, Nevada. It is the largest MMA entity in the world and the most recognizable brand within the sport, with events dating back to 1993. It is also the sports organization with arguably the closest ties to the Trump administration.
Ortiz debuted in the UFC in 1997, when he was still in college. He won the light-heavyweight championship in 2000, and defended it five times over the course of the next three years, a stint at the top which was, at that time, record-breaking. He is considered to be one of the sport’s earliest stars and a pioneer for future generations of MMA fighters. His most recent fight took place in December 2019.
Yet beyond his illustrious career as a fighter, Ortiz has long used his platform to amplify Trump, associate with far-right groups, and propagate dangerous conspiracy theories such as QAnon, all while campaigning for a seat in office with the promise of “Making Huntington Beach Safe Again.”
“I will be the first city council member of Huntington Beach to be a professional fighter and a city council member at the same time,” Ortiz said during his speech to applause from the crowd.
TITO ORTIZ’ CAMPAIGN is the product of the new American age—an era of celebrity-driven populism, conspiracy-fueled stardom, and a political scene that employs cagefighting as a form of diplomacy.
A native of Huntington Beach, Ortiz was roused to enter politics following a wave of Black Lives Matter protests that took place in the town in May and June 2020, which he attended with a group of locals under the guise of “maintaining the peace.” Taking inspiration from Trump—a fellow businessman who lacked any political qualifications prior to running for office—Ortiz decided to run for Huntington Beach City Council. “I’ll give a lot of credit to Donald Trump because he’s not a politician. He’s a businessman who had a business strategy to make America great,” Ortiz told ABC7.
Ortiz’s relationship with the incumbent president dates back to 2001, when the UFC held two consecutive events at the Trump Taj Mahal casino. At the time, the UFC had been relegated to small venues in states like Mississippi after then-Arizona senator John McCain referred to MMA as “human cockfighting.” The comment tarnished the UFC’s reputation and its ability to promote events across the United States. Trump took a chance on the UFC and allowed the promoters to host shows at his casino.
Ortiz was one of the biggest stars the UFC had at the time. He headlined one of the shows at the Trump Taj Mahal and won his fight in 30 seconds. Since then, he has been pictured with Trump on numerous occasions over the years and even appeared as a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice,” hosted by Trump.
When Trump announced his presidential campaign, Ortiz quickly became one of his staunch supporters. He attended a Trump rally in Anaheim, California, in May 2016, where he was spotted behind Trump holding a sign that read, “Hillary Clinton Killed My Friends,” before joining the raucous crowd in a “build the wall” chant. (Ortiz’ sign references a right-wing conspiracy theory about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.)
Ortiz’s emphatic support for Trump is part of a much larger trend of combat-sports athletes endorsing strongmen leaders. Countless UFC fighters have thrown their weight behind Trump, while several notable Brazilian MMA fighters and jiu-jitsu competitors helped elect Brazil’s far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro. In Russia, local wrestling champions and MMA fighters campaigned for long-time president Vladimir Putin, while Chechnya’s ruthless dictator, Ramzan Kadyrov, founded his own MMA organization, a soft-power strategy that was later replicated by Bahrain’s Prince Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa.
There is a variety of reasons for this strange union between combat sports and authoritarian leaders. Some value the endorsements of masculine athletes, which they view as part of a larger public relations campaign. Others use their affiliations with these sports stars to distract from ongoing human rights abuses, or even as a form of sports diplomacy between nations.
While Trump’s history with the UFC dates back nearly two decades, his continued attachment to the violent sport is due to an acute awareness that a significant portion of the UFC’s fan base leans conservative. The company is also partial to Trump, and UFC President Dana White, a Trump fan, spoke at the Republican National Convention in 2016 and 2020, as well as at several Trump rallies. The UFC even went so far as to produce a documentary on its history with Trump, which was aptly named “Combatant-in-Chief.” Given the free marketing and eager fanbase, Trump recognizes that the UFC is an ideal platform for his political ideology.
The ripple effects of the Trump-UFC connection can be seen in Ortiz’s campaign, which gained traction due to Ortiz’s celebrity status as a fighter, his ardent support for Trump’s presidency, and the publicity he received from the Trump family, including Donald Trump Jr. and Lara Trump. He remains competitive in the race, despite running a campaign lacking any substance. Even his “Make Huntington Beach Safe Again” campaign slogan is obviously Trumpian.
In his official statement of qualification, Ortiz explained that he spent most of his life “training, researching issues (opponents), thinking, strategizing, and succeeding.” His campaign website, boasts a platform that the writer claims “represents the values and Constitutional rights we as residents of our city hold dear.” Ortiz says he believes that “limited government is the best government,” is a “strong” supporter of law enforcement, wants to lessen the “homeless problem” in the city, and is a “100% supporter of the Second Amendment.”
According to Ortiz’ campaign contribution forms, the fighter received more than $27,700 in donations and has approximately $17,000 on hand, which is competitive given he has only been in the race since July 2020.
As a result of his apparent popularity and well-financed campaign, Ortiz is primed to become the first former UFC champion elected to public office.
“RIOTERS—DON’T LET them take over your city, ’cause in Huntington Beach, we ain’t having it,” Tito Ortiz said during the June 6, 2020, BLM protests in his hometown. “Not in our town, homie.”
Dressed in a white shirt emblazoned with the word ‘HB Strong,’ Ortiz—along with a group of locals, MMA fighters, and former soldiers—stood guard over the city’s downtown core. Their purpose, in Ortiz’ words, was to “keep the peace.”
Ortiz and his makeshift group of supposed peacekeepers stood in front of the Huntington Surf and Sport and watched over the protests and counter-protests taking place minutes away from the local beach. Approximately 500 people attended the protests, the majority of whom were demonstrating against the murder of George Floyd, the Black man who was killed by police officer Derek Chauvin when Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nine minutes. Most stood in solidarity with the BLM movement, while others held up signs such as “Stop Police Brutality.”
The former UFC fighter filmed the day’s events, which included shots of him shaking hands with riot police and local officers. Then, speaking to the camera, Ortiz made several references to antifa, terrorists, and rioters.
“I’m OK with protestors … what I am not OK with is terrorists in this country, and I’ll fight for this city.”
The statement is a perfect encapsulation of Ortiz’s political and ideological stance.
Ortiz is arguably one of the athletes in the United States most driven by conspiracy theories, and has been particularly erratic since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns. During a recent podcast appearance, he claimed that the virus was “man-made” and a political scam devised to suppress protests around the world.
“Once again, it’s population control by the left,” Ortiz said while dressed in a Trump t-shirt. “They’re trying to get rid of all the older people who are getting Social Security.”
The former UFC fighter also claimed that George Floyd did not die of suffocation but due to a heart condition. He later added that Floyd was linked to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.
Ortiz has since continued to use his platform to promote conspiracy theories, and even began selling apparel marked with QAnon slogans such as WWG1WGA (Where We Go One We Go All) through his Punishment Athletics clothing line. (It appears that Ortiz has since removed the QAnon apparel from his site.)
QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory turned virtual cult that claims a cabal of elite pedophiles made up of Hollywood actors, Democrats, and other high-ranking officials is behind a global child sex-trafficking ring. The group asserts that Trump is currently fighting the cabal and is planning a day of reckoning known as “The Storm.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation has labeled the movement a “potential domestic terror threat.”
Beyond his tinfoil-hat conspiracies, Ortiz has also been arrested on numerous occasions. In 1998, just one year into his UFC tenure, Ortiz pleaded guilty to charges of “battery with serious bodily injury” and was sentenced to three years probation, 29 days in prison, and more than 200 hours of community service. Then in 2010, he was arrested for felony domestic violence against then-girlfriend Jenna Jameson. Ortiz then accused Jameson of drug addiction and claimed he never struck her. No charges were filed against Ortiz due to “insufficient corroboration.”
In 2014, Ortiz was arrested on DUI charges and sentenced to three years probation, along with an undisclosed fine and mandatory alcohol education program.
Despite his criminal history and repeated trouble with the law, Ortiz has had little difficulty gaining the support of law enforcement officials. His campaign was recently endorsed by the Huntington Beach Police Officers Association — the association behind the police department that arrested Ortiz in 2010. He is also endorsed by Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, while Peter Mitchell, a political consultant and lobbyist for a handful of Orange County police unions, also contributed to his campaign.
Ortiz has also been endorsed by former assemblymen Scott Baugh and Travis Allen, former Huntington Beach mayor, and convicted felon Dave Garofalo, anti-mask activist Dr. Jeffery Blake, the Lincoln Club of Orange County, as well as the Republican Party of Orange County.
The fact that Ortiz was able to gather such important endorsements is a testament to how the conservative community views him. In many ways, the MMA fighter is an extension of Trump’s political ideology and a personification of the modern GOP—a racially-fueled, conspiracy-theory-driven party filled with poisonous masculinity, toxic militarism, and patriotic propaganda. Ortiz happens to meet all the aforementioned requirements in spades.
Given the UFC Hall of Famer’s controversial beliefs, his decision to run for office has been met with a mixture of support and criticism from his fellow candidates. Thomas LaParne has expressed his “utmost respect” for the former UFC fighter, while Oscar D. Rodriguez believes that candidates like Ortiz use “their celebrity status and wild QAnon conspiracy theories to advance themselves politically and personally.”
“I honestly didn’t know that Tito lived in town when he announced he was running. Serving as chair of the planning commission, he never showed up to speak about development and I’ve never seen him at Bolsa Chica helping to preserve and restore open space. The only time I’ve seen him in recent years is on TMZ or standing on the side of known hate groups ‘protecting’ HB from peaceful protests,” said fellow candidate Dan Kalmick.
The criticism is shared by some of the Black voters in Huntington Beach. Prior to speaking at an Oktoberfest event at the Old World Village on Oct. 14, Ortiz claimed he was “confronted” by Black Lives Matter protesters who questioned his decision to run for office. Part of the exchange was captured on camera, where Ortiz can be seen aggressively responding to a Black woman.
“I was ready to take a bullet for my city to protect property,” Ortiz said during the exchange. “And not one other City Council member ever stood for that except me. I have Mexican, white, Irish, and Black in me. Stop being the victim.”
Ortiz did not respond to Right Wing Watch’s request for comment.