Tito Ortiz is one of the most recognizable fighters in modern mixed martial arts. The Huntington Beach Bad Boy burst onto the MMA scene some 13 years ago at UFC 13 in 1997. Since that time his skills inside the octagon and his charismatic personality have carried him to the forefront of the sport. Ortiz went on to win the Light Heavyweight Championship in 2000, and since then he has competed in some of the biggest rivalries the sport has ever known – against Ken Shamrock and Chuck Lidell. But most of those accomplishments took place a while ago. The days of Ortiz’s dominance seem to be long gone, and it appears everyone knows it… accept Ortiz.
The Fame Game
Early success propelled Ortiz to the top of his sport and earned him the status of being a large Pay-Per-View draw, but what has kept him at this level may have been something else. Ortiz may have become famous as a fighter, but his celebrity has increased a great deal because of his actions outside of the cage.
Ortiz is perhaps just as well known nowadays for his dramatic, headline-making relationship with former adult film star Jenna Jameson as he is for his fighting. The couple began dating in 2006 and welcomed twins in 2009. From the very beginning of the relationship the couple made headlines. From a snub by the U.S. Marine Corps to a very public domestic violence dispute, Ortiz’s fame continued to grow as mainstream media outlets covered the couple’s theatrics. While Ortiz fighting record worsened over the years, his star power actually grew.
Similarly, Ortiz’s mainstream celebrity grew with appearances on reality television. Tito got a chance to promote both himself and his clothing brand, Team Punishment, when he coached the last season of the Ultimate Fighter. Ever the opportunist, he stole the show by outbursts and demolishing doors when his team was beaten by rival coach Chuck Lidell’s team. Even when he was fired as a coach by UFC President Dana White, he did so with such dramatic flair that he remained a focal part of the show even after his absence. He even made the full fledged jump into mainstream reality television with his appearance on Celebrity Apprentice. As unlikely as it may have seemed ten years earlier, an MMA fighter had actually became a household name among MMA fans and non-fans alike. The problem remains that while his name has staying power, his skills do not.
It’s All About the Matchup
Mixed martial arts, like any other sport, is a “what have you done lately?” world… and the answer Tito Ortiz has to give is, “Not a whole lot.” His record over the last several years has been less than impressive. Despite having lost to an aging Chuck Lidell at UFC 66 in December of 2006, he continued to test himself against fellow Light Heavyweights Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans, and Forrest Griffin. He posted two more losses against Machida and Griffin, and a draw against Rashad Evans. Having won only one of his last five fights seems not to have taught Tito that his best days are behind him.
His last victory came nearly four years ago, when he demolished an aging MMA legend Ken Shamrock. Obviously that fight added to Ortiz’s legacy as a fighter – because he beat up and forced his longtime rival into retirement – but even that was ancient history.
The sport of MMA has evolved, but it seems that Ortiz has not. Tito has often relied on a simple “ground and pound” approach. Ortiz has always been a big guy and has had to cut weight to make the 205 pounds cut off for the division. He would use his size and skill as a submission wrestler to take guys down and basically sit on top of them pounding the life out of them. But the competition is getting better. It seems that all fighters have a background in either wrestling or Brazilian jujitsu, and a one dimensional approach just isn’t enough anymore.
His last fight was a split decision loss to Ultimate Fighter Season One winner, Forrest Griffin. Griffin represents the influx of new blood into the sport. While not an overwhelming fighter in any one aspect, even he was too much for Ortiz. And the loss was even more telling considering that although Griffin was a former champion himself, he is more of a gatekeeper for the division right now. A benchmark fighter that marks the acceptability level between elite contender and filler of the ranks, so a loss to him does not bode well for Ortiz’s future.
Even Fighters Get Old
But Tito has really yet to acknowledge his toughest fight is still yet to come – the fight against Father Time. At 35 years old Ortiz has become one of the old timers of MMA. While he’s nowhere near Randy Couture territory, he’s also not proven as effective as “The Natural” either. Couture, now 47, has won five fights since Ortiz’s last victory and has managed to stay reasonably healthy by comparison.
Ortiz, however, suffered a severe neck injury that kept him out of the headline matchup against Chuck Lidell that would have followed the conclusion of The Ultimate Fighter. If left untreated his injury could have led to paralysis if he chose to fight through the pain. The surgery Ortiz underwent to repair the damage left him with a screw in his spine, yet he plans to continue to fight. Sure, it is tough for an athlete of any type to decide when they’ve had enough and it must be especially hard for a fighter to admit they just don’t have what it takes anymore. But after an injury like that, the clock must be winding down on Ortiz healthy fighting days, and it might be in his best interest to shut it down before he gets hurt permanently. It is ironic that the fighter who once put a UFC icon – Ken Shamrock – into retirement doesn’t know when to walk away from the sport himself, but that appears to be the case.
Tito should take solace in the knowledge that an end to his fighting days does not have to be an end to his connection with the sport he loves. He is among the most charismatic and entertaining fighters in the industry. I would love to see him replace Joe Rogan with color commentary at events. He could choose to just train the future of MMA at his Team Punishment Training Center in California. But whatever he chooses it is definitely time to make his next fight his last.