Prior to UFC 133, Tito Ortiz was the beneficiary of a groundswell of support very uncommon in this cocky, brash fighter's career, but far from rare in the canon of American sports or general history, for that matter. America simply loves a comeback story. Ortiz's story hit all the customary plot points: a once-great champion fallen on hard times, his personal life in turmoil, his legacy crumbling, and the only confidence in Ortiz coming from the man himself.
And then, in his last shot, with his career on the line, he beats a talented young fighter in Ryan Bader. It was straight out of a movie. And if it was a movie, it would've stopped right there because what comes afterward is never up to par.
On Saturday night, Rashad Evans illustrated the divide between "elite" and wherever Tito Ortiz currently stands. Ortiz can't throw those combos Evans was stringing together; he can't smother opponents the way Evans smothered him; he has neither the speed nor the stamina to hang with the younger lions, like Evans, any longer.
Tito Ortiz isn't a shot fighter by any stretch of the imagination, but it has become apparent that there's a certain tier in which he can no longer compete. And though there is a place for him in the division, it isn't where he's accustomed to being, it isn't where he wants to be, and it may not even be where fans want to see him. Those fans had gotten behind Ortiz in an unprecedented way prior to the Bader fight-people just love the redemption story, and wanted to see him reach the mountaintop once more.
But as I've noted, the movie script tends to stop a little short. Fans, including myself, couldn't help being swept up in the Bader win, although we could have taken cues from history as to what was truly occurring. In combat sports, it's a remarkable but not unusual phenomenon that a great fighter can almost always pull off his "last great win", no matter how poorly he's performed, how perception has turned against him, or how fearsome his opponent is considered.
Every truly great fighter has it in them, and we've seen it quite often in recent years. When it seemed the wars had finally caught up to him, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira notched a glorious victory over Randy Couture. Shane Mosley wiped the floor with Antonio Margarito when most thought he was washed up and offered nothing to "The Tijuana Tornado". Hardly anyone gave 40-year-old Peter Aerts a chance to pull the upset against Semmy Schilt in last year'sK-1 Grand Prix, but that didn't stop him from winning a vicious battle.
And then, from lofty heights, those fighters fell back down to the earth. For Nogueira, it was the greased lightning quickness of Cain Velasquez. For Mosley, it was Floyd Mayweather's defensive brilliance. For Aerts, it was Alistair Overeem's iron fist.
So while Ortiz's defeat may seem somewhat deflating, it was following the script of reality and history rather than some Hollywood trope. But that doesn't diminish what the former light heavyweight king did against Ryan Bader. The "last great fight" of a champion is to remind you that while they may not be what they once were, what they once were was a mighty force. It's to let you know that although there may no longer be a belt strapped around their waists, they are still champions. It's to let you know who they are one last time, so that you'll never forget.