It was only a few months ago when Tito Ortiz had his back against the wall and was fighting for his job.
But his shocking win over Ryan Bader at UFC 132, an emotional high point for the company in 2011, has likely enabled the former UFC light heavyweight champion to finish his career on his own terms, rather than someone else's.
Ortiz, who turns 37 on Jan. 23 and underwent both back and neck fusion surgeries in recent years, is beginning to talk like someone who recognizes his long journey is about to end. One of the final stops may be Saturday night in Toronto when he faces Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (19-5) in one of the main fights at UFC 140.
"I've got two more fights left on my contract," said Ortiz (17-9-1), who on Saturday will set a record with his 26th fight in the UFC, a mark he currently shares with Matt Hughes. "I've achieved my goals for my career.
"I want to watch my boys grow up. I've had two major surgeries. I want to be able to throw a ball with my kids, run with my kids. I've made the money I need to make right now. I've got one more fight left after this one on my contract and we'll see. Then we'll see where I stand."
Ortiz debuted at UFC 13 on May 30, 1997, spurred on by the success of Jerry Bohlander, a fighter he beat in the California high school state wrestling tournament. Ortiz has not only had the longest UFC career of anyone in history, but he predates Dana White, Lorenzo Fertitta and any employee in the company with the exception of matchmaker Joe Silva.
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In his own way, Ortiz shaped some of the growth of the company. White first got interested in MMA when he managed Ortiz and then-training partner Chuck Liddell.
Nearly 15 years later, instead of talking about making one last run at the title, Ortiz has been reflecting on his journey in recent weeks. That includes being the longest-running light heavyweight champion in UFC history, the first major star of the UFC's Zuffa era and the person whose rivalries with Ken Shamrock and Liddell helped build the company's pay-per-view business.
"Winning a world title [from a prime Wanderlei Silva in 2000], being an amateur in my first UFC fight ever, defending the world title five times – the longest of any light heavyweight – helped build the business in general," Ortiz said. "I could have been just a normal fighter. I made a brand of the Tito Ortiz name with Dana and Lorenzo. I look at my career and I think I've done well for someone whose parents were heroin addicts. I've lived in the streets, lived in the garage, found wrestling and it saved my life."
While most in the business talk about the UFC's Las Vegas debut in 2001 as a disastrous night – the company's first time back with almost full pay-per-view clearance in years and a rare terrible show – Ortiz saw that night as the turning point in the sport's history.
"UFC 33 at Mandalay Bay, the first UFC event in Las Vegas and being the headliner, that's when I knew I had made it," said Ortiz, who defeated Vladimir Matyushenko that night. "It made me very proud. This was in Las Vegas. Mike Tyson fought in Las Vegas, every star, every entertainer, the fight capital of the world."
But Ortiz has been around long enough to see a sea of change since that day.
"It's rad to see how crazy it is," Ortiz said. "I remember when fans were booing double-leg takedowns and submissions. Now people are really educated on the sport. It's really cool to see. When I'm at a show (Ortiz is a front-row regular at most major events), I critique a lot of things, how the fighters present themselves, how they answer questions, how I could help them do a better job. Maybe there's a future there working with the UFC."
On Saturday, he's facing another battle-proven veteran. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, 35, has a strong background in both jiu-jitsu and boxing. He's been a big-named fighter for a decade in a sport where long shelf lives on top are rare and has represented Brazil in the Pan American Games and South American games, winning a bronze and gold medal, respectively.
"I think he's an awesome athlete, one of the top guys in my weight class," Ortiz said. "He beat Dan Henderson, beat some really good guys, a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, good boxing, his wrestling defense is really good."
In recent years, Ortiz has made a habit of saying, pre-fight, that he's had the best training camp of his career, then afterwards, immediately saying he was injured and barely got through camp. But he's not going that route this time around.
"Everything went well," he said. "I'm not in my best shape. You have injuries, nagging injuries, but I'm ready to go out and fight, that's for sure. I'm good to go and put on a show like I always do. I'm not saying I'm injured, and I'm ready to go do it."
Ortiz and Rogerio Nogueira were scheduled to fight on March 26, but Ortiz pulled out after suffering a cut in training two weeks before the fight that required 22 stitches.
Instead, Ortiz faced Bader in July. He had been told outright that if he lost, which would have been his fourth straight defeat, he would be cut.
"When I won the title, that was expected," he said. "When I fought Bader, everybody wasn't sure. I was there to prove my fans were right no matter what anyone said. It was one of the most emotional moments I've ever had in my life. I was sober for a whole year, didn't drink any alcohol at all. I had to wait until I won my fight. After I won, I had a glass of wine and it tasted so sweet. I'm not a heavy drinker, but it was my reward for all my hard work. Usually I stop drinking three or four months before a fight, but that time it was a whole year. The next morning I woke up, my son came up and sat there with me and I had tears."
The crowd's emotional reaction was something else, as for years Ortiz had been booed loudly in almost every fight. But on that night, fans seemingly realized that this probably was going to be Ortiz's swan song and wanted to pay respect to the legend. Then he won with a quick knockdown followed by a guillotine submission in just 1:56.
Ortiz came back five weeks later and took a fight against Rashad Evans. Ortiz had originally balked when he was asked to replace an injured Phil Davis, but changed his mind a few days later. Evans proved to be way too fast for Ortiz, as "Sugar" finished him off in the second round.
"It wasn't a mistake [to take the fight so quickly]. As a fighter, maybe yes it was, but as a businessman, no," Ortiz said. "Dana asked me for a favor. I showed him I'm a company guy. I'm there for them. I made mistakes before but I have all this history with the UFC. I wouldn't take anything back."
And if he could pick his exit, he has an idea in mind: A trilogy fight with Forrest Griffin.
"Forrest Griffin, our matchups are great," he said. "We've both won once, and both fights were split decisions. People who want to watch exciting fights, our last two matches were great fights."
- Tito Ortiz