LAS VEGAS – With a slew of injuries, illnesses and defections thinning the ranks, the Ultimate Fighting Championship and its president, Dana White, have had a more difficult time fielding a quality lineup than the Cleveland Browns.
As awful as the Browns are, that's saying a lot.
But with heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar (perforated intestine), light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida (broken hand), middleweight champion Anderson Silva (right elbow surgery) and welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre (torn abductor muscle) on the shelf with injuries, White didn't need to know that a month ago, Tito Ortiz suffered bulging disks in his neck when he was dumped on his head in practice in Big Bear, Calif. And he certainly had no interest in hearing that Forrest Griffin broke his right foot while kicking in a practice three weeks ago in Las Vegas.
Still, Griffin and Ortiz went on and put on a show at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in a UFC 106 fight card that lacked the big-time star power a heavyweight title fight between Lesnar and Shane Carwin would have provided. Nonetheless, the card was still filled with action from top to bottom.
But it wouldn't be a UFC fight card if there wasn't a scoring controversy, and much of Saturday's post-fight news conference was devoted to the verdict that judges Lester Griffin and Marcos Rosales ruled in favor of Griffin.
Lester Griffin, no relation to Forrest, scored the bout 30-27 for Griffin, the winner of Season 1 of "The Ultimate Fighter." Rosales had it 29-28 for Griffin, the same as Yahoo! Sports, while judge Glenn Trowbridge had it 29-28 for Ortiz.
But this fight should not remembered for a scoring controversy, but rather for the character, courage and determination of two former champions who both had demons to overcome and who nonetheless went out and sacrificed their bodies and put their hearts on the line.
Griffin was coming off a first-round knockout loss to Anderson Silva in which he was dropped with a jab. He sprinted out of the ring without a word after the fight and rarely spoke to the media in the three months afterward.
Ortiz had for several years gone through a bitter – and very public – feud with White, his one-time manager. After his contract expired last year following a loss to Machida at UFC 84, Ortiz underwent spinal fusion surgery that was potentially career-ending.
He wanted to take a tune-up fight to ease himself back into action and was supposed to be the co-main event on Saturday in a bout against Mark Coleman, with the heavyweight championship fight between Lesnar and Carwin set to headline.
But Coleman tore knee ligaments and pulled out and then Lesnar became ill and had to withdraw. White not only needed an opponent for Ortiz, but a new main event. He called Griffin, who literally was on his honeymoon, and asked him if he'd take the fight.
"I cut the honeymoon short and started to train," Griffin said.
Ortiz was excited to accept the fight with Griffin, whom he defeated via split decision at UFC 59 in 2006. In retrospect, it might not have been such a wise move. Ortiz, though, is convinced that despite the loss, he'll be able to return to the elite level he once had when he ruled the 205-pound division for three years.
"I'll be there (on top) again," Ortiz said. "For me coming back, this was supposed to be a warm-up fight. Me and Dana talked about it being a warm-up fight, but Forrest is no warm-up fight, being ranked fifth in the world. I might have bitten off a little too much, but I still thought I won the fight. "I'm far from being over. You don't understand. I'm 34 years old. I just want to get back in the gym after having that long layoff like that. I think I might have overstepped my boundaries by coming back too quick. After back surgery, back (to training) after only one year, I want to see another athlete do what I do after one year of having two-level fusion. I think I've broken some records."
Neither man was as good as he was when he was at his peak, but much has happened since their halcyon days.
Ortiz nearly broke down in tears, his voice quivering and filled with emotion, as he talked about what the fight meant to him.
He later lobbied White to name himself and Griffin as coaches for Season 11 of "The Ultimate Fighter," which will begin filming in January, to set up the rubber match between them. White was noncommittal, but Griffin said he'd do it if he were asked.
"Me and Tito kind of have the same strategy, though I got on board a little before Tito, which is to do what Dana says," Griffin deadpanned, eliciting laughter from the media and an impish grin from White. "That's what is best for us. That's been my strategy pretty much for the last five years of my life, and it's working pretty good. I'm going to continue to do that."
Listening to White has helped Griffin become one of the sport's biggest stars. His star was dimmed considerably by the loss to Silva – and by his reaction to it. On Saturday, however, he came back and fought a typically tenacious Griffin type of fight.
Despite the foot injury, he willingly kicked Ortiz, who tried to claim at the press conference that he checked most of them. He was always in Ortiz's face, throwing punches, and he battled hard even when he was dumped on his back and eating elbows.
"I broke my foot, all right?" Griffin said, jokingly. "I had a broken foot and I was still kicking with a broken foot. I want some props for that."
They both deserved props for fighting despite their injuries. Ortiz came back from the spinal fusion surgery much more quickly than anticipated and fought despite bulging disks in his neck.
His doctor advised him not to fight. Ortiz couldn't box after that and could only do light conditioning work, which was probably why he was so out of gas by the third round.
"I thought his shots were actually pretty good, at least until he ran out of gas," said Chuck Liddell, Ortiz's long-time rival. "You have to have that conditioning and he didn't have it. But his shot looked good early and he took Forrest down pretty easily."
Ortiz did little in the third round because his conditioning betrayed him, and that was enough to give Griffin the win. All three judges gave Griffin the third round and two of the three (Lester Griffin and Rosales) gave him the second.
This, though, was one of those fights where the outcome didn't really matter. When you see an athlete willing to sacrifice his body completely for the cause, the outcome is often irrelevant.
The history books will show that on Nov. 21, 2009, Griffin won and Ortiz lost. But to most of the 10,529 fans, as well as the many others who saw it on TV, both men left the cage as winners on Saturday.
And in a spell in which injuries and other problems in the UFC are the worst they've ever been, White came out a winner, too.
He left Saturday knowing he can still count on Griffin and Ortiz to be top-of-the-bill stars.
- Tito Ortiz
- Forrest Griffin
- Dana White
- Brock Lesnar
- Anderson Silva