For most of UFC 133 last night, the crowd was dead. No, not the crowd in Philadelphia, I'm talking about the crowd at the Chicago bar where I took in the show. Because you see, I am one of those bar-watchers of the UFC. I do this for a few reasons, but one of the primary motivations is that I love seeing how the crowd responds to the show. It's easy to get a bit caught up in the world of being a writer and a devoted MMA follower and forget the views of those who follow the sport a bit more casually. Watching in a bar is a great way to see those views, and last night, for the vast majority of the show, that crowd did not care.
Until one moment.
No, it wasn't the Dennis Hallman trunks (though, admittedly, that did draw a reaction). It wasn't even Rashad Evans stopping Tito Ortiz, though you're getting closer. The moment the crowd went nuts for was Tito Ortiz's guillotine attempt. And I was right there screaming with them. Even as I cheered, a part of my brain saw the positioning and knew Rashad wasn't going to tap, but it didn't matter. Tito Ortiz was potentially on the verge of stunning upset #2 and the people were going berserk.
It's been a hard year for fans of the old guard in MMA. From both Vitor Belfort and Randy Couture suffering crazy KO's, to Wanderlei Silva being brutalized, to Fedor belly flopping, a lot of the old legends of the sport have fallen hard in 2011. But UFC 133 showed that these legends are far from done. More importantly, it showed that the UFC needs legends, and needs men like Tito Ortiz.
When Tito Ortiz stepped in for Phil Davis, my interest in this card greatly increased, and I don't think I'm alone there. Yes, Evans vs. Davis is a more competitive, relevant fight. But it wouldn't have been a spectacle the way Evans vs. Ortiz was. And that's exactly what a man like Tito Ortiz brings to the table - spectacle. From his years of building up emotion in fans, Tito is able to draw huge responses to his fights. Some tune in to see him lose, some to see him win, but you know something big is going to happen. It's a testament to his long term popularity that earning just 1 win in 6 fights immediately made him relevant once again.
So why is it that Tito draws these kinds of responses? It's because he came from a time in the sport when the big stars were presented as larger than life. He is from the days of scary guys named the Axe Murderer, of 90 minute fights, of new disciplines coming in and redefining the sport. These were times where the big stars all held some sort of mystique.
Today, the best in MMA are better athletes - more well rounded, with excellent skills in all areas and the kind of world class teams behind them to really capitalize on those skills. But they're also, frankly, more boring. Fighters like Rashad Evans, Georges St. Pierre, or Cain Velasquez are often soft-spoken, contemplative men who have honed their craft to near perfection. And that perfection is a beautiful thing to watch.
But sometimes, we want something a bit rough around the edges. We want to see Tito Ortiz dig his opponent's grave. We want to see Vitor Belfort reign down punch after punch on his fallen foe. And this earlier generation of MMA stars is the best place to find those rough edges.
There will come a time, not long from now, when all our links to the first wave of MMA are gone from the sport. When that time comes, the UFC will need to find more of these kinds of fighters - the men capable of drawing huge emotion out of a single submission attempt. I know they're out there. But for now, they're still living in the shadow of men like Tito Ortiz.