At 53, Mesa MMA fighter a movie star The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

At 53, Mesa MMA fighter a movie star

At 53, Mesa MMA fighter a movie star

By Janelle Molony
Tribune Contributor

At age 53, Mesa High School wrestling coach Thom Ortiz accomplished a feat few to none of his peers could replicate.

In 2017, Ortiz stepped into the octagon for a pro mixed martial arts fight. Being significantly older than his 20 to 30-something year-old competitors, this drew the attention of filmmakers and resulted in the completion of a multi-award winning documentary, “El Viejo.”

Ortiz had previously coached wrestling at Arizona State University, helping several celebrity fighters from Arizona to pursue their dreams of going pro.

He’s coached two-time heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, C.B. “The Doberman” Dollaway and Ryan “Darth” Bader.

“I’ve actually cornered Cain and Patrick Williams before,” joked the former coach.

After an eight-year stint with the college, in October 2009, Ortiz established the World Fighting Federation with partner Al Fuentes in Tucson ( The organization prepared young adults for professional fights, including the televised Ultimate Fighting Championship shows on Pay-Per-View.

Each time he attended a pro match with a student, he thought, “I want to fight, too.”

While promoting and training up the next generation of fighters, Ortiz dabbled in amateur events on the side.

“I was 42 years old at the time,” he explained, when he first fought in Nogales.

There, he received his nickname “El Viejo,” which means “The Old Man” in Spanish. Ortiz said it was a fitting name since 40 was the typical age for fighters to retire from the sport.

On transitioning from amateur to pro, Ortiz would have to overcome the fixed mindset he was raised with. Ortiz’s father once told him, “I always wanted to be a pro boxer,” but he never pursued this direction.

As a father of four children, Ortiz also recalled his freshman year at ASU under the guidance of coach Bobby Douglas.

Douglas instilled in him the importance of living a life beyond what is in front of ones’ self, he said. At the time, this meant seeing potential in his life beyond wrestling.

Douglas firmly guided Ortiz to complete his college education. Later, Douglas was inducted into the Arizona State Hall of Fame and in 2003 to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

“Sports, for me, was [on par with] getting an education,” Ortiz said, citing the ability to build self-esteem and confidence while providing opportunities for scholarships.

After selling his portion of the WFF in 2017, Ortiz made the decision to step down from management and step into the ring.

He obtained the necessary medical clearances and began preparing at Fight Ready Gym in Scottsdale, where he met Shane Alison, a local health professional (

“He caught me in a submission,” Ortiz explained. He told Alison how much fun he was having at 51 and when his sparring partner heard this, he announced, “I’m going to film you!”

Acting as the producer, Alison organized a film crew with Matt Hickney and began documenting the wrestling coach’s new journey. Hickney followed Ortiz with his camera for a duration of 10 months, saying, “This man’s training regimen was the same as a man half his age.”

In February 2018, “El Viejo” faced Andy Perez, “The Golden Boy” from Tucson.

The film became a family affair, according to the star, who included his wife, his two boys Pierce (10) and Cruz (8), and friends.

“This film is also a huge promotion towards children’s sports activities – whatever it takes to get your body in motion,” said Ortiz, who has already begun speaking at local schools to spread his message of perseverance and mental strength.

The film was released Feb. 25 on Amazon Prime for $12.99. There is no MPAA rating for the film, though Ortiz says it is appropriate for everybody.

Hickney suggests some parental guidance as there are some swear words and graphic violence typical of a mixed martial event.

“El Viejo” has received seven distinguished film awards, including Best Arizona Feature (Arcosanti International Film Carnivale), Best Featurette (Global Independent Film Awards), and Best Documentary by several organizations (Festigious International Film Fest, Los Angeles Film Awards, and the Jerome Indie Film Festival).

“It’s pretty amazing how everything turned out,” Ortiz said, without sharing the final fight results. For that, he said, “You’ll have to watch the documentary.” He is planning to expand on the film project in an upcoming memoir.

Ortiz will be making an appearance at the Combate Americas fight in Tucson on March 13.

Information on the film:  γ

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