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On Wednesday evening, I awoke from a nap to find my Twitter mentions filled with screenshots from CNN's coverage of a Donald Trump campaign rally in Anaheim, California. While I was caught off guard initially, it wasn't long before my sleepy eyes recalibrated and focused on the enormous upper body bust of Tito Ortiz: his chest, shoulders and head making him appear twice the size of every other human in the hard camera-facing gallery.
Mixed martial arts fans love to make fun of Ortiz and frankly, with good reason. Ortiz's outlandish excuse making, hilarious malapropisms and generally over-the-top persona have made him an easy target of mockery over the last decade or so. Having him front and center supporting the most polarizing, bombastic demagogue in recent memory is too delicious and too expected to resist.
But, most of the Tito-Trump laughs I see on social media seem to hinge on the idea that Ortiz is hapless and gaffe-prone and that as a target of ridicule who always seems to say or do the worst (or at least laughable) thing in any given context, of course he would be a Trump supporter. Regardless of how politically informed he may or may not be as a voter, Ortiz's Trump support is legitimately intriguing: it may surprise you, but “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” is the very essence of the pro-Trump majority and a refutation of the laziest political analysis concerning Trump's surge in popularity.
If you've followed the 2016 American election season at all, you've assuredly heard the idea that Trump's emergence as a viable American presidential candidate is predicated on stoking fear and racial animus among the “white working class.” This is really just a coded cable news political wonk euphemism: the suggestion is that a lamentable coalition of racist, gun-loving trailer trash are single-handedly buoying an otherwise illegitimate campaign. As if that sort of classist sneering from professional political analysts isn't bad enough, it's also flat wrong.
In the last couple of weeks, it's finally become irrefutable that this characterization was garbage. Exit polls have repeatedly shown that Trump supporters typically have college degrees -- like Tito Ortiz -- and in many states, Trump was the preferred within a then-field of six among voters with postgraduate degrees. In the Massachusetts primary, 45 percent of college graduates voted Trump, and 28 percent of those with postgraduate degrees voted Trump; in Tennessee, it was 38 percent of college grads and a massive 36 percent of those with postgraduate degrees.
Finally, the likes of Nate Silver and Co. have gotten around to poking another hole in the theory, as it turns out the median income of a Trump supporter is about $72,000 per year. The average Ted Cruz supporter was only marginally higher at $73,000, while Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters averaged around $61,000.
Trump voters come in all kinds, but as a fairly affluent, but by no means notably rich 41-year-old American with a college degree, Ortiz is essentially a boilerplate Trump voter, contrary to what you may have heard. In fact, this isn't even the first time that Ortiz has made it known he's backing the curiously-coiffed real estate mogul for prez. When you look at Ortiz's reasons for backing Trump, it makes it apparent that his presidential preference goes much deeper than demography.
In late January, Ortiz made an appearance on “In the Loop” on Houston's SportsRadio 610 and said in no uncertain terms he was a Trump man. Here's some of what Ortiz had to say about why Trump won his vote, in spite of both Ortiz's Mexican heritage as well as Trump personally voting him off of the seventh season of “The Apprentice”:
“I'm a Trump guy, I wasn't in the beginning, of course. I’m Mexican when he said we need to take all the Mexicans out of the United States, well, good luck on that one. They’ll find a way to get back here anyways. But, in the long run, I think he wants to bring money back to our country and with the debt that we are in, I think he has an opportunity to do that.”
On foreign policy and possible domestic terrorism:
“It’s just not Mexicans that we have worry about. It’s the Muslims, it’s the radicals; that come in that have the opportunity to come into our country and do the thing with terrorism that’s hindering our country. We shouldn’t be afraid to walk around and look over our shoulders and some guy has a bomb in his pocket or something stupid.”
And, maybe most telling of all, what's truly inspiring about Trump:
“For a person to become a billionaire, to be flat broke, bankrupt, to rebuild himself to be a billionare, now to become almost the President of the United States, it's amazing. He's a hard worker. He can make America great again. That's my vote for him.”
These three statements are a holy trinity of traits that mark the most ardent Trump supporters. One, as the average Trump supporter tends to be solidly middle class to upper middle class if not wealthier, Ortiz shares the general anxiety of Trump's would-be electorate has about their wealth somehow drying up in front of their very eyes. They tend not be Marco Rubio-esque “proper” fiscal conservatives, just Americans who are liquid and comfortable and suspect that could all be taken away from them in a heartbeart. Secondly, he shares the interconnected belief that some combination of immigration and domestic terrorism could be the catalyst to enact that scenario.
The most hardline Trump fans, those who have supported him throughout primary season before he toppled other wannabe Republican nominees, those who are voting for him out of zeal rather than a distaste for Clinton or Sanders -- those like Ortiz -- are forever fearful of these blurry-if-not-invisible monsters creeping in the political haze, ready to take everything they've worked for.
And that brings us to why Ortiz really relates to Trump in his own mind. It should come to no one's surprise that Ortiz says he was converted to a Trump supporter after considering “The Donald's” myriad financial comebacks. Whether right or wrong, Ortiz has always tried to frame his achievements as the product of relentless hard work and dedication and likewise, Trump is always keen to paint himself a bootstrapper.
The irony of bootstrapping is rich with Trump, who of course always talks about starting out with a “modest loan of a million dollars” and once said in a New York Magazine feature that “everything in life is luck.” Ortiz's story is much more hardscrabble: his parents were drug addicts, he was addicted to crystal meth as a teenager and hanging out with gangs in Santa Ana, Calif. At the same time, Ortiz was a fantastic athlete and just happened to know Paul Herrera, a UFC veteran who was coaching wrestling at Golden West College and gave him a life-altering chance. Through Herrera, he also happened to be connected to “Tank” David Abbott, from whom he stole his “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” nickname from and would eventually help grease the wheels for Ortiz to make his UFC debut.
There is luck in Ortiz being located in southern California, an MMA hotbed long before the sport was legal in the state, and just happening to have the right connections to eventually get a UFC bid. There is tremendous luck in his timing, period: if Ortiz was a bit younger, he might've missed the natural bridge into MMA or at least entered the sport later under different circumstances. Even if he comes along later, does he end up feuding with the Lion's Den team, the rivalry that helped make him the UFC's posterboy for years? Ortiz has undoubtedly worked his ass for nearly 20 years in MMA, but like most self-professed, self-identified bootstrappers, there is a considerable measure of “right place, right time” that gets ignored. After all, Donald Trump claims that even if he was born in a coal mine, he would've left, because he has “imagination” that others simply don't.
The bootstrapping narrative is crucial in this conversation. It's a cornerstone of populist campaigning: it reaffirms the misguided idea that America, or any place on Earth for that matter, is a pure meritocracy, where hard work always pays off and the cream rises to the top. A presidential candidate or former UFC champion going hard on this concept is essentially preaching radical self-belief to others, so it's probably not a surprise we find that trait in them.
Trump and Ortiz are both weirdly cocksure when discussing their professional and even personal failures. Trump always has a million ways to spin prior bankruptcies or explain real estate implosions by saying the contractors sucked and they simply fired them. Ortiz has spent most of his career explaining his losses via an insane spectrum of maladies and injuries, probably the primary reason he's transformed into an MMA figure of satire, most famously his “cracked skull” at UFC 106 in the Forrest Griffin rematch. Neither of them have much of a problem addressing, at least obliquely, their past failed marriages and both of them have taken great lengths in their books -- Ortiz in “This is Gonna Hurt” and Trump in “The Art of the Comeback” -- to detail their myriad nuptial infidelities.
The sorts of shortcomings that most of us struggle to admit and confront? Water off a duck's back for them, always a rationalization or explanation to be had, however seemingly insane. Yet, what hurts their feelings, what can actually shake the self-belief of folks like Trump and Ortiz? Strange, emasculating slights.
Call Trump a racist or a sexist? He's got rhetoric to knock this softball out of the park. Tell him he has small hands? Existential meltdown. Ortiz has his would-be retirement moment after the cracked skull debacle shutdown by Griffin, he says he forgives him. Ortiz gets clobbered twice by once-training partner Chuck Liddell? They were always buddies, he could never bring himself to hate the guy. Bring up Lee Murray decking him in a London alley? He slipped wearing dress shoes. He horrifically opines that Matt Hamill has a soft head because he's deaf and explains via pseudo-science? Oops, my bad. Randy Couture spanks him in the dying seconds of their UFC 44 main event? Ortiz bawls while the decision was being read, then cries again at the post-fight press conference.
Now, admittedly, Ortiz and Trump are just too perfect as bedfellows, I could play armchair psychologist all day. It's no wonder Ortiz sees Trump in himself as he did try to win “Celebrity Apprentice,” after all. You're not going to find too many Trump supporters more perfectly cut from the same idiosyncratic cloth as the candidate himself than Ortiz, right down to their foggy “Yeah, Jesus is pretty great” religious politics, undying support of the troops, dating famous beautiful women and public freakouts over their Fruedian nightmares.
That said, as much as I enjoy how amusingly similar Ortiz and Trump in their public personas, this is what's more important: Ortiz rallying for Trump isn't just about the more granular, neurotic ways that these men are similar. Ortiz isn't voting for Trump because he's a non-sensical trainwreck all that we've come to love in MMA, catering to our satirical fantasies. Sure, the greatest political statement Ortiz has ever really made is entering the cage to “Mosh” by Eminem, but that doesn't mean he isn't incredibly indicative of a passionate Trump majority which has been miscast from its outset by sloppy political analysis.
When Ortiz decided he was done with Tank Abbott's nickname, he laughably chose to refashion himself “The People's Champion,” because he represented “the people.” He hasn't exactly done a great job literally representing people as a manager, either. As a Trump supporter, Ortiz is as representative as he's ever been.
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