From It is 9:30 on a blistering Arizona morning. In a hot one-room gym in Mesa, fighters are already rolling on the ground, practicing Jiu Jitsu. One fighter looks a little different from the rest.

Thom Ortiz has been responsible for coaching UFC fighters CB Dollaway, Ryan Bader, and Cain Velazquez to collegiate success. Now, the former Arizona State head wrestling coach is making the transition to mixed martial arts, at 42 years young.

Ortiz brings 34 years of wrestling experience to the table. He is helping young fighters like Efrain Escudero and Santino DeFranco improve that aspect of their skill sets.

“My major focus is helping these current MMA guys,” Ortiz said. “They know how to wrestle, but there are the finer details that I can add to their MMA game.”

However, Ortiz has not come to the sport of mixed martial arts as a wrestler. He is working with gyms around Arizona, learning Jiu Jitsu, learning kickboxing. Ortiz is looking to do what some fighters half his age struggle to do; become a well-rounded fighter.

“You really have to be sharp on all aspects if you want to compete at a high level,” Ortiz said. “How am I going to tell a kid to shoot if I don’t know where a punch or a knee is coming from?”

“A lot of wrestlers are going out there without learning the other martial arts,” Ortiz said. “That’s why we’re in here doing Jiu Jitsu. It’s foreign to me, but sometimes Drew [Fickett] tells me, forget about wrestling. Doing too much wrestling will get you in trouble, get you armbarred.”

Mornings Ortiz works on his Jiu Jitsu at Southwest MMA. In the afternoons, he works on kickboxing. All of this work and preparation is being done so that Ortiz can help the next generation of fighters a little more. He is even preparing to step into the ring himself.

“If I’m going to help you, I want to know what you’re going through,” Ortiz said. “When I coached at Arizona State, I’ve been there. I’ve been to the NCAA tournament; I know what you’re going through. So I want to be able to tell these guys, I know what you’re going through [in a cage].”

From a distance, this dedication to helping others might be surprising. But to those who know Ortiz, it’s the kind of coach he is.

“When it came down to us getting into MMA, he did anything and everything to help us out,” said Ryan Bader, who Ortiz coached to three Pac-10 championships. “I support him 100 percent.”

“He was always there for me,” added Cain Velazquez, Bader’s teammate at Arizona State. “He’s a great coach. He’s never led me wrong.”

Ortiz says he gives so much to MMA, and to wrestling before it, because he gets out ten times what he puts in. Growing up in a rough part of Tuscan, Ariz., Ortiz began wrestling at the age of eight.

He eventually translated those wrestling skills into a scholarship at ASU, where he received his education and wrestled under legendary coach Bobby Douglas.

With MMA growing in popularity, Ortiz has found another way to give back.

“[The sport is] giving me the opportunity to help these wrestlers find a career,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz recognizes the advantages that a wrestling background can give a fighter. That being said, he knows that the sport is not for everyone.

“It’s not for every wrestler. Not every wrestler likes getting hit,” Ortiz said. “[The sport is] very demanding, requires a lot, but the wrestling mentality is a great foundation for the fighting game.”

Ortiz is working with wrestlers to help them adapt to the fight game, and working with non-wrestlers to help give them a wrestling mentality.

For someone who has practiced a craft for over 30 years, Ortiz is surprisingly open to other styles.

“You let go of your pride and you take everything in to get better, and in turn you make other people get better,” Ortiz said. “I come in with a new attitude. At my age, I can’t afford to be stubborn.”

This is why, after getting tapped out with a triangle, Ortiz jumps up with the enthusiasm of a teenager, ready to try it again. Bader says that Ortiz will continue to better the sport, and he is right. When he is done, the number of fighters that he will have helped will be immense. That list is already growing.

Cameron Gidari is the Associate Editor at He can be reached for comments and questions at