The idea that Ortiz can never compete with the upper tier or even mid tier of the UFC light heavyweight division is grossly overstated. It is clear that ring rust from inactivity as well as - quite literally - rebuilding physical capability imposes a tax on professional athletes. Too many fighters have been buried in the press as being incapable coming off of injury-ridden layoffs, only to persevere over time. Frank Mir and Shogun Rua, anyone?
The idea that because Nate Quarry made a return a to competitive fighting after undergoing similar surgery that therefore Ortiz should have no problem is poor abstract generalization. The problem with the Nate Quarry analogy is that his return to professional MMA saw him meet Pete Sell, who is unranked insofar as the top 25 middleweights are concerned. By contrast, Ortiz returned not to face a fighter with a skillset manageable enough to handle given the long layoff. He fought a top 5 fighter in Forrest Griffin who has consistently battled top competition as he improved his skillset. Ortiz would have had to fight Mike Nickels or Tim Boetsch for the analogy to be more appropriate.
Ortiz is actually in a similar position to where Kimbo Slice stood in EliteXC. That is, matchmaking became difficult because they had to find a name to fight him that could help sell tickets but that name couldn’t be talented enough to defeat the very green former street fighter. The UFC isn’t going to trot out Ken Shamrock for a fourth fight, so Ortiz is stuck in a position where the only names for him to fight are those at the top of the division who are threats to everyone else competing in the division, much less one who has been absent for the previous 18 months.
But this is, ostensibly, what Ortiz asked for. I will give him credit for playing EliteXC, Affliction and Strikeforce like violins over the course of 18 months to keep his name in the press and his visage in the public eye. However, by signing with the UFC – and by proclaiming loudly he wanted to be in the UFC so he could, in fact, fight the best – he assumes responsibility for meeting those challenges. One is never certain where Ortiz’s promotional shtick ends and his candid opinions begin, but in this case it’s irrelevant. Even if he took the UFC deal for substantive financial gain and to make use of their considerable promotional ability, the other end of the deal is the requirement he face exceptionally tough challengers. No debate, no dodging. Just performance.
The problem with Ortiz is not a lack of ability. He may never be champion again, but he is a capable fighter. His real problem is his semi-career/life slump which is being exacerbated by his defensive posturing from attacks about said performance. Consider the circumstances:
Think about this: In less than 40 days, it will be 2010. Ortiz has not won a match since 2006. That is a lot of history, over 1,100 days since Ortiz's hand was raised in victory. Since then, he's lost three times, had a draw, been frozen out of the UFC, had back surgery, had twins with his girlfriend Jenna Jameson, flirted with other organizations, rehabbed and returned.
That's a lot of life lived between wins, and a lot of age to overcome. He turns 35 in two months, and now admits he still has a bad back. In a division with sturdy, well-rounded veterans like Lyoto Machida, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Rashad Evans, surging youngsters like Jon Jones, Thiago Silva and Ryan Bader, the ageless legend Randy Couture and even an occasional appearance from Anderson Silva, this is not a weight class with any gimmes. And it is not a weight class with an easy roads towards the top.
So when Ortiz whines his face is broken, that other fighters could only hope to do what he did off of back surgery or that - via Hail Mary logic - the judges robbed him of his rightful win, he only worsens the impression that he's a fighter on the skids who can't compete with the rest of the division.
What this event demonstrates is that Ortiz accrued huge sums of positive equity with fans and insiders in the early to middle stages of his career, yet has spent quite a bit of it to cover for mediocre or ill-fated performances. Some of his misfortune is inopportune timing or career squabbling not entirely of his doing. But some of his problems are self-generated and worse, self-perpetuated. Ortiz is still a serious media figure, but must admit his career has finally taken a hit.
The good news for Ortiz is that he has not reached his credit limit just yet. The other takeaway from this fight is that a win - a dominating, clear victory - for Ortiz would do wonders for his career. The energy and enthusiasm for Ortiz is there, but it's slowly over the last few years ossified into fan apathy or disdain for disappointing performances. Yet, Ortiz is still the center of attention. He cannot recapture lost glory, no. But future resurgence is not out of the realm of possibility either. He's got the raw material to build himself back into not what he was, but to something new and compelling.
His cries of robbery are obvious nonsense, but they do retain some measure of utility. There's opportunity cost as the protests from Ortiz look unprofessional and desperate, but desperation isn't unhelpful in promoting fighters in combat sports. If Ortiz can generate enough interest in his future fights by claiming injustice against Griffin, he can continue to rebuild and hone his skills in the interim. If the UFC can provide more manageable opposition in future opposition, Ortiz can work towards a legitimate challenge .
Need proof? Look no further than Shogun Rua. After a disappointing performance against Forrest Griffin, Shogun was given an easier contest in Mark Coleman (yes, Coleman is still dangerous, but let's not point to that fight as evidence) only to get a subsequent fight against a diminished, if more capable Liddell. This allowed Shogun to buy time in his recovery such that at the moment he arrived at the Machida fight, he was actually ready to take on serious challenges. Point blank, Ortiz has not been afforded the same opportunity.
It's no guarantee Ortiz returns to any semblance of an old form. Any future success hinges on changes he's willing to make and performances he has to turn in. But the door is still open. There is still a window of time to be relevant. Not the relevancy of before, but something new. The choice to take advantage of that opportunity belongs only to Mr. Ortiz.
Your move, Tito.