Ortiz is Exhibit A in MMA’s popularity

Tito Ortiz is simply the latest example of why mixed martial arts is such a great sport and why it continues to grow during the toughest economy since the Great Depression.

Less than two weeks after literally saving his job by submitting Ryan Bader at UFC 132, the former Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight champion stepped up for the opportunity to fight No. 1 contender Rashad Evans and essentially save the show at UFC 133 on Aug. 6 in Philadelphia.

Phil Davis had to withdraw from the event because of an injury and, with three weeks left until the card at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, the UFC was in desperate need of a headliner to face Evans.

There weren’t a lot of options, particularly when former light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida tried to hit the UFC up for a huge raise in return for taking the fight.

After mulling it over, Ortiz opted to take the match despite a lot of bad possible outcomes because, he said, “I’m a UFC fighter and the UFC needed me. I wanted to step up and help the UFC and do something for the fans who have supported me so much.”

This literally doesn’t happen in any other sport. Do you think there is even a remote chance that Phil Mickelson would enter a golf tournament because it needed a top star after Tiger Woods pulled out because of injury?

Such actions are an MMA exclusive and it’s why the sport has developed such an intense and passionate fan base. There have been reports that the Philadelphia show has not been selling well, but UFC president Dana White scoffed at the notion it would be a flop.

“I’m going to stand up there at the [post-fight] press conference and rattle off the attendance and give you the gate and you’re going to be blown away again by what we will do,” White said. “I don’t know how many tickets we have sold now. And I know that this economy is brutal – absolutely [expletive] brutal – and people are really struggling and it’s hard to sell tickets. But UFC fans will step up and be there because they know we deliver.”

There will be critics who will rip the show for featuring a main event with a fighter who is 1-4-1 in his last six bouts, as is Ortiz. That, though, would be picking at low-hanging fruit and not looking at the overall picture.

The UFC has been ravaged by injuries and it’s become almost a daily occurrence to report that one fighter or another has been injured and forced to withdraw from a card. It’s making it difficult to fill out cards, let alone put on main events that are compelling and get fans talking.

Ortiz has long been one of the sport’s biggest attractions, but when he entered the fight with Bader at UFC 132 in Las Vegas earlier this month, he knew he had to win or he’d lose his job.

Ortiz blasted Bader with a huge right hand that made Bader woozy and allowed Ortiz to quickly maneuver for the fight-ending guillotine choke. Had Ortiz, who was about a 5-1 underdog, lost that fight, he would have been cut from the roster.

Now, though, he’s going from possibly losing his spot to fighting the No. 1 contender in his class. White approached Ortiz on Monday, when he learned that Davis wouldn’t be able to compete, about taking the spot opposite Evans. Ortiz is 36, which is ancient for a fighter, and was coming off a grueling training camp. He would have been well within his rights to tell White no. At this stage of his career, every fight is extraordinarily significant for Ortiz and taking a fight on short notice against an elite guy like Evans isn’t easy.

Many fight experts would have counseled Ortiz that just taking the fight wouldn’t be advisable. Sports books have opened Evans as a 5-1 favorite.

Ortiz told White initially that he had things going on in his personal life and didn’t think he could do it. Though White and Ortiz have had a long-running feud, White understood that and called Machida, who won the light heavyweight title by knocking out Evans in 2009.

“Machida’s been champing at the bit to fight and telling us, ‘I want to fight, I want to fight,’ so when we called and offered him the fight [with Evans], he said, ‘I’ll fly out there tomorrow to fight if you pay me what you pay Anderson Silva,’ ” White said. “I was like, ‘[Expletive] you. Achieve what Anderson Silva has achieved and maybe you’ll get paid that way.’ And so we moved on.”

Ortiz thought about it overnight and called White and asked if anyone had taken the bout. When White said no, Ortiz said he’d take it.

He weighed the pros and cons and felt it was a great opportunity for him. He said he’s confident he can win – Ortiz and Evans drew in 2007 in a bout Ortiz would have won had he not had a point deducted for grabbing the cage – and said he came out of the Bader fight healthy.

As he thought about it, he said he put whatever cons there were out of his mind.

“I’m not worried about the cons at all,” Ortiz said. “I’ve been training for the last eight weeks for the same type of fighter, just a little bit stronger and a little bit younger. Dana asked me if I’d step up and it took me a couple of days to really weigh out the pros and cons. I’m not thinking of any of the cons. I’m just thinking of all the pros. The biggest thing is that Rashad is the No. 1 guy at my weight class and I’m thankful to have this opportunity. I’m going to shock the world again.”

It’s been a long, strange journey for Evans, who defeated Quinton “Rampage” Jackson at UFC 114 on May 29, 2010, to become the No. 1 contender for the light heavyweight title then held by Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.

The Rua-Evans fight was delayed first because Rua was injured. It was rescheduled for UFC 128, but then Evans injured a leg and had to pull out. Former teammate Jon Jones replaced Evans and routed Rua to earn the title.

It then looked like Evans would meet Jones later this year for the title in a major grudge match. But when doctors initially told Jones he would need surgery on his hand, that fight was scuttled and Evans was moved to a bout with Davis.

Davis then got hurt leaving Evans to face an old, familiar face in the UFC. Given the long, frequently acrimonious relationship Ortiz has had with White, it would seem almost inconceivable that Ortiz would do White such a favor.

That, though, is what happens in MMA. And no one at this point is more appreciative than White, his one-time nemesis.

White has urged other veteran fighters from Ortiz’s era like Wanderlei Silva and Chuck Liddell to retire, but said he never called for Ortiz to retire. He was going to cut him simply because he was losing, even if Ortiz was never fully healthy and was competitive in nearly all of the fights.

Now, though, White is glad he kept him around.

“A loss is a loss and Tito was losing and you can’t ignore that,” White said. “But the difference between him and Wanderlei or even Chuck Liddell is that he wasn’t getting viciously knocked out. Tito in his prime would take guys down and ground-and-pound them, and people said he was one-dimensional as a result. But he’s got an incredible ground game. He fought in such a way that he wasn’t taking the kind of punishment some of the other guys were, and so he didn’t have to worry about that.

“He’s already in great shape and he’s busy and I’ve always said Tito needed to stay busy. So, this could turn out really well for him.”

It’s turned out best for the sport, ultimately, because fighter after fighter in this business has the idea to do what is right and please the fan base first and worry about things such as contracts and bonuses later.

It may not be the fight that you expected or that you even wanted, but given the situation, you have to commend Tito Ortiz for riding to the UFC’s rescue one more time.

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Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Jul 13, 2011