Thursday, January 19, 2012

Tito Ortiz, we salute you

It was July 2, 2011. My buddies and I had gathered at our usual sports bar for UFC 132. Soon after the first round of beers arrived, the discussion of who wins which fights began. “Bader is going to smash Tito tonight…maybe even into retirement,” I said to my friend. He looked at me dead in the eyes, and replied “I don’t know why, but something tells me Tito wins this fight. I just think Tito is going to pull one out tonight.” I looked at in a state of shock and confusion.

Tito had always been a “love him or hate him” fighter, and I hated him. This was mainly because in the infancy of my MMA obsession, one of the fights that hooked me was Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz I at UFC 47. I watch the knockout sequence about 10 times in row when I first saw it on DVD. I just loved watching him get his head smashed in. I saw his fight with Forrest, and I thought he should have lost. I saw his fight with Belfort, where he almost fought Chuck AND Ken Shamrock after the fight. I saw the feud between him and The Lion’s Den, including the infamous “Gay Mezger is my Bitch” shirt. His personality just rubbed me the wrong way, and I never wanted to see him win. Ironically, he didn’t for over four years.

At the same time, certain things began to change. I saw the Ultimate Fighter 3, and I saw how good of a coach he was. I was actually quite impressed with how Tito looked as a leader, and I thought he did a great job with his team. Was I actually gaining respect for him? I thought he should have won against Rashad Evans (everyone grabs the fence). Even in defeat, I thought he looked good against Lyoto Machida, especially slapping on that triangle choke towards the end. His second fight with Forrest was as exciting as the first one, and the right guy won this time! I thought his striking was the best it had ever been against Matt Hamill. He was impressive again during his second coaching stint on TUF 11. And let’s not forget, he was a former light-heavyweight champion who carried the UFC on his back during the “dark ages.” I wasn’t beginning to become a Tito fan…was I?

I really didn’t understand why my friend had picked Tito to win that night, but after witnessing a Carlos Condit flying knee sending Dong Hyun Kim to the canvas, I began to feel it. There was something special in the air that night. One right hand and guillotine choke later, Tito Ortiz had his first victory since 2006. I looked at my friend with my jaw nearly touching the floor. He just shrugged his shoulders and said “I told you so” with a smirk. The fact is that, love him or hate him, Tito Ortiz is undoubtedly a legend in the sport. He stepped up to face Rashad on just three weeks’ notice after his triumphant victory over Bader. Even though he lost, he put up a valiant effort (he didn’t look bad at all, Rashad just looked that good this time). He even hurt Little-Nog on feet with strikes before he fell victim to Minotoro’s body shots. Had he began to evolve like this at a younger age, I can’t help but think that he could be relevant in more than just name value in the light-heavyweight division today.

The question has been thrown around if Tito should retire after his most recent loss to Nogueira, or have the right to finish out his contract that has one more fight on it. I believe that he absolutely has earned the right to go into the cage one more time. His two most recent defeats were due to body shots more than strikes to the head, so he hasn’t taken as much damage (per se) as someone like Cro Cop or Chuck Liddell. His previous four fights before the Bader fights were three competitive decision loses and a draw which he would have won (everyone grabs the fence, do you really need to take a point away? Sorry, had to say it again). So, who should he fight in his last fight? I think a perfect opponent for him would be Stephan Bonnar. Bonnar has been on a nice streak of recent, and is still a big name to UFC fans. He’s a tough, crafty veteran with well-rounded skills. It would be a tough fight, but definitely one I could see Tito winning if he plays his cards right.

I also realized he should be in the UFC Hall of Fame without question. If it wasn’t for his title reign, his antics, and his feud with Ken Shamrock and The Lion’s Den, there might not be a UFC right now. His 2nd fight with Chuck Liddell remains one of the most bought UFC pay-per-views of all-time. He deserves the highest accolades for those achievements. That night at UFC 132, Tito Ortiz did his patented “gravedigger” celebration. I used to hate it, and walk out of the room or change the channel when I saw it. That night, I loved every minute of it. I thought I’d never see it again, and I had actually begun to miss it for a while. Tito, thank you for being an MMA icon, and here’s to one more performance of a storied career.

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