At UFC 148 this weekend, we will see the true end of an era as long-time UFC superstar Tito Ortiz fights his last fight. The Huntington Beach Bad Boy will complete his trilogy with Forrest Griffin Saturday night, and then will walk away from the UFC and MMA, seemingly for good (though of course, you should never say never when it comes to MMA retirements). With the retirement of Ortiz looming, along with his pre-show induction into the UFC Hall of Fame, now is the time to look at the career of the former champion and try to sort out exactly where he stands in the MMA history books. And when you look at his entire career, the answer I think is clear:
Tito Ortiz is among the all time elite in MMA history.
I'm sure there will be rumbles about that idea. After all, for many fans, the dominance of Tito Ortiz may be more of a legend than an actual reality. Fans always hear stories of his time at the top of the UFC Light Heavyweight division, but in recent years they have not seen that dominance, instead watching Ortiz lose fight after fight. But those loses should not obscure the reality of Ortiz's past - and that reality is that he was, at one time, the dominant UFC fighter. To see that reality, let's start at the beginning.
Making his pro debut all the way back at UFC 13 in 1997, Ortiz had an unlikely start to his MMA career. Ortiz attended UFC 13 largely to accompany his training partner Tank Abbott, but also competed in a tournament alternate bout, fighting as an amateur. He won, and when tournament participant Enson Inoue was injured, Ortiz suddenly found himself in the finals against Guy Mezger. Tito lost that fight (though it was not without controversy, as Mezger seemed to tap at one point), then took nearly two years off to train. When he returned to the UFC in 1999, he was a different fighter, running through top contenders Jerry Bohlander and, in a rematch, Guy Mezger.
It was that second Mezger fight that really pushed Tito to the top. After defeating Mezger, Tito donned a shirt reading "Gay Mezger is My Bitch" and exchanged heated words with Mezger's trainer Ken Shamrock. In that moment, it was clear what Tito Ortiz was all about - superb in-ring skills, combined with a charismatic bad-boy attitude that immediately ignited fan response.
After defeating Mezger, Ortiz challenged Frank Shamrock for the UFC Light Heavyweight title. He lost that fight, largely due to conditioning struggles, which famously led to him being incredibly focused on conditioning moving forward. When Shamrock retired post-fight, the UFC was left without a champion, and Tito Ortiz faced Wanderlei Silva for the vacant title. Ortiz dominated The Axe Murderer, winning an easy 5 round decision.
From there, Ortiz rattled off an impressive five straight Light Heavyweight title defenses - still the most successful Light Heavyweight title defenses in UFC history. And those defenses were brutal. Three were first round stoppages, including a nasty 30 second slam KO of Evan Tanner and a vicious choke of Yuki Kondo.
Over the course of his 3 year run as champion, Ortiz saw his star skyrocket. In ring, he was a force, using his size, strength, and superior wrestling skills to brutally take his opponents down and pound them out. Out of the ring, it was his mouth that earned him fame as Ortiz developed his persona of both a brash trash-talker, but also a hard working champion who loved his fans. That stood in sharp contrast with the quieter demeanor of champions like Matt Hughes and Randy Couture, and earned Tito rabid hatred, and equally rabid devotion. Whatever you felt about him, it was clear that every Tito Ortiz fight was an event.
No fight was more an event than his UFC 40 clash with Ken Shamrock. That fight was the big coming out party for Zuffa, as the company looked to use the star power of Ortiz and Shamrock to break records and bring back fans who had been lost during the so called dark ages. It worked, as the fight drew mainstream attention and record numbers. And once again, Ortiz was dominant, beating Shamrock to a pulp over 3 rounds.
And then things took a bad turn for Ortiz. Chuck Liddell was next in line for a title shot, and Ortiz seemingly ducked the fight, saying he and Chuck were friends and he would not fight. This was the start of Ortiz's career being focused as much on fight selection and contract issues as it was on his talents. With Tito sitting on the sidelines, Randy Couture became the Interim champion, ultimately defeating Ortiz to unify the title and officially end the champion's run in 2003. After that, Ortiz did indeed face Liddell, though not for the title, and was KO'd in round 2. He had a pair of wins over Patrick Cote and Vitor Belfort before stepping away from the UFC in 2005, flirting with Pride a bit and appearing on TNA wrestling.
When The Ultimate Fighter broke in 2005 and the UFC took off, Ortiz was brought back in to coach TUF 3 against his old rival Ken Shamrock. 2006 ended up being one of the best years of Ortiz's career as he returned by defeating Forrest Griffin in a great fight, earned a new legion of fans with his coaching stint on TUF, smashed Ken Shamrock twice more in a pair of heavily watched fights, then challenged Chuck Liddell for Chuck's Light Heavyweight title, giving the Iceman a tough test before losing. Little did anyone know that was effectively the end of the line for Ortiz.
From 2007-2010 he fought sporadically, taking just 1 fight a year and going 0-3-1. Again, this time was more marked by Ortiz's actions out of the ring as he quit the UFC in 2008, again flirted with other promotions, appeared on The Celebrity Apprentice, wrote a book, appeared in movies, underwent back surgery, and went through a very public (and rather silly) feud with Dana White that was to ultimately culminate in a White vs. Ortiz boxing match that never happened.
In 2011 he was back for what most assumed would be his now traditional yearly loss, this time to Ryan Bader. Instead, Ortiz pulled off one of the greatest upsets in UFC history, submitting Bader to earn his first win in nearly 5 years. He used that momentum to earn one last main event slot against Rashad Evans at UFC 133. He's now on a two fight losing streak against Evans and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.
It's so tempting to look at Ortiz and view him as less than what his legacy would have you believe. The ammunition for that argument is right there: He was one dimensional. He was dominant during a time when the level of competition was low. He ducked opponents. He ended his career winning only 1 of his last 8 fights. He was a product of marketing more than talent. But to look at him that way is, frankly, just wrong.
Tito Ortiz is an all time great whose name deserves to be spoken off among the elite in MMA. His UFC Light Heavyweight title run was indeed a marvel, as was the fact that he remained relevant at the sport's highest level for 15 years. Yes, he lost a lot at the end, but it wasn't only his persona that kept him alive, it was also the fact that, even in loses, he was remaining competitive against the sport's very best. Until Shogun Rua, he was the man who had come the closest to defeating Lyoto Machida; for a time he was the only man who Rashad Evans had faced and failed to defeat; he fought Griffin to a split decision in their rematch. These are UFC elite, and even in the twilight of his career, Tito Ortiz gave each of them all they could handle.
But what really makes him stand-out as an all time great is that larger than life persona. As I said before, a Tito Ortiz fight was an event. Even as the loses piled up, he still made his fights seem like they mattered, like they were somehow larger than life. In his entire career, the Hamill fight is really the only one that feels inconsequential. He knew how to show off that Huntington Beach Bad Boy personality in order to grab the attention of every single fan in the arena, and he did it time and time again. MMA needs more figures who understand this part of the game. MMA needs more men like Tito Ortiz.
When Ortiz retires this week, MMA will lose a little bit of spark. Sure, there will be plenty of men ready to take that spot. But they will be building off the path already laid down by Ortiz. He's a true legend of the sport, and, win or lose, it will be a pleasure to watch him do what he does best one last time.