MMA's main attraction

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Tito Ortiz didn't fight particularly well. He didn't win. He certainly didn't back up a lot of his boastful pre-fight talk.

But enough of what Ortiz didn't do during his fight with Rashad Evans at UFC 73 on Saturday at ARCO Arena.

What he did do was prove, conclusively, his relevance to the UFC and to the sport of mixed martial arts.

The so-called main event, the middleweight championship between Anderson Silva and Nate Marquardt, was fought less than 10 minutes after Ortiz and Evans battled to a controversial draw in a bout that left the crowd of 14,370 hoarse.

The crowd was essentially devoid of emotion by the time Silva and Marquardt had reached the ring, having had it sucked from it by the overwhelming presence of Ortiz. He left and he took much of the crowd with him.

He should have left with a win because it was he, not Evans, who came to fight. It was Ortiz who initiated, who tried to give the crowd what it came to see.

Evans fought timidly and as if he were on the big stage for the first time. He seemed hesitant to engage Ortiz despite his protestations that he thought he had won.

If UFC president Dana White, who has feuded publicly with Ortiz over much of the past decade, needed any proof of Ortiz's impact on his business and his sport, he saw it during the heavily hyped Silva-Marquardt fight, when fans acted as if they couldn't care less. Silva put on a spectacular display in stopping Marquardt in the first round, but the crowd, which paid a live gate of $1.5 million, was essentially flat.

That was clearly due to Ortiz, who instantly began trying to hype a rematch.

"It wasn't my best performance and Rashad is tough as hell, a lot tougher than I thought he would be," Ortiz said.

Evans got a huge assist from referee John McCarthy, who docked Ortiz a point in the second round for holding the cage as Evans went for a takedown. That, though, was one of the few offensive moves Evans made until the waning moments of the bout.

Evans was a bit player in this affair. He tried his best to hype the fight, going far out of character to act as a trash talker and making himself look and sound like the MMA version of Floyd Mayweather Jr. It was hardly becoming of a guy who had conducted himself with class throughout his UFC career until he signed to fight Ortiz.

At the post-fight news conference, Evans and Ortiz began to trade more taunts. Evans accused Ortiz of grabbing the cage repeatedly in the second round to avoid being taken down and said Ortiz was out at the end of the fight when he slammed him with about 10 seconds to go.

And he taunted Ortiz after giving him a cut and swollen right eye.

"All you did was you took me down and you held me," Evans said to Ortiz. "Take off your glasses (to show the swelling in Ortiz's eye.) … And when I had you at the end of the third, you were out. You had nothing. You were like a little (expletive)."

Ortiz has that kind of effect on people. Half the crowd Saturday loved him and roared itself hoarse cheering his every move. The other half was equally as passionate in booing him.

No other fighter – not heavyweight champion Randy Couture, not former light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell – has that impact. Those two, arguably the biggest stars in the sport, are almost universally loved.

"The Tito Ortiz-Rashad Evans fight was a grudge fight and people love grudge fights," White said. "And people either love or hate Tito. There's no middle with him. You're either for him – 'Go Tito' – or you hate him – 'Tito sucks.' No doubt about it. Tito is one of the top guys. No doubt about it."

There are fighters far more skilled than Ortiz who sell far fewer tickets. They're as colorful as a piece of stale bread and do nothing to stir passion in the fans who buy the tickets and host the pay-per-view parties.

Ortiz pushes every button there is, up to and including confronting his bosses, as he did in the days leading up to his fight with Evans.

He accused White and other UFC officials of not promoting him in an effort to limit the size of his next contract. White responded by calling him a "complete and total moron" and noted that UFC officials had put billboards with Ortiz's "big ugly gorilla face" at key points in New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

"He's not the pay-per-view monster you think he is," White said, grinning, after Saturday's show.

White might have a different answer once he signs Ortiz to a long-term contract. And all he had to do was look around him at ARCO Arena.

Ortiz, though, needs to win a fight against someone who is a threat because the act isn't going to last much longer if he doesn't. In his last four fights, he has two wins over 40-something Ken Shamrock (who was long since finished as an elite fighter), a loss to Liddell and the unsatisfying draw with Evans. Also, Ortiz defeated Forrest Griffin in a split decision on April 15, 2006, in a fight that many believe Griffin had won.

No, Ortiz doesn't have much margin for error anymore, not with the plethora of quality fighters who are populating the light heavyweight division. Another lackluster performance in the rematch with Evans and even the diehard Ortiz loyalists are going to jump off the bandwagon.

But that time isn't here yet.

Even though he didn't make a statement with his fists on Saturday, Tito Ortiz made one with his presence. And, even if he wouldn't admit it, you can bet that Dana White noticed.