LAS VEGAS – Tito Ortiz started down the path to Ultimate Fighting Championship stardom a little more than 11 years ago in Japan when he won the light heavyweight title by scoring a unanimous decision victory over Wanderlei Silva at UFC 25.
On Saturday, the past and the future collided, when Ortiz shared the spotlight at a sensational UFC 132 card at the MGM Grand Garden Arena with the promotion's next-generation star, bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz.
Cruz, who retained his belt by defeating archrival Urijah Faber in the main event in a fast-paced bout that was mixed martial arts at its finest, was just 14 years old when Ortiz topped Silva oh so many years ago.
Ortiz became the sport's biggest star and the face of the UFC in the early part of the century, but then had hit such hard times over the last nearly five years that he was literally fighting for his job on Saturday.
Ortiz, who was a 5-1 underdog, would have been cut had he not won. The former champ, though, not only submitted Ryan Bader, but he won a $75,000 bonus for the Submission of the Night when he caught Bader in a guillotine choke after dropping him with a right hand.
It was one of the high points of a sensational card that included spectacular knockouts by Carlos Condit over Dong Hyun Kim, Melvin Guillard over Shane Roller, Rafael dos Anjos over George Sotiropoulos and Chris Leben over Silva, as well as a back-and-forth battle between Cruz and Faber in a bout that was fought at a breakneck pace.
But while the Cruz-Faber grudge match, which Cruz won by scores of 50-45, 49-46 and 48-47, had the crowd of 12,947 roaring and frequently on its feet, the story of the night was the fate of the UFC's two veteran stars.
Ortiz saved his job with his stunning submission, though the beloved Silva may have lost his when he was knocked out in just 27 seconds by Leben.
Silva was wobbled by the first clean shot that landed, a sign that his once strong chin is betraying him. Leben followed with three hard uppercuts, all of which landed on the button, and then finished the fight on the ground.
Cruz and Faber put on the flashy show, and earned their $75,000 bonuses apiece for taking Fight of the Night. But the post-fight news conference was dominated by the discussion of the fate of Ortiz and Silva.
Ortiz kept his job, but Silva appears headed for retirement after losing for the sixth time in his last eight outings. He was so woozy from Leben's punches that he tried to pull guard on referee Josh Rosenthal after Rosenthal pulled Leben off to save him.
UFC president Dana White said he'll talk with Silva, but suggested that Silva's days as an active fighter most likely are done.
"Tonight was a [big] night for both of these guys, and tonight was a night for both of those guys to win," White said. "Everybody knew that Tito had to win tonight to stay in the UFC. He did it. Not only did he win the fight, he won the fight impressively, dropping the younger, stronger guy who many people felt had better hands, dropping Bader and then submitting him.
"As far as Wanderlei goes, I say this all the time: You can sit and break down fights and think this fight should go like this and this fight should go like that. But people knew him and Leben were going to come out and they were going to throw until somebody fell down. That was Wanderlei tonight."
Silva has been one of the sport's most popular fighters, both in the UFC and in the now-defunct PRIDE Fighting Championship, for his throw-caution-to-the-wind style and willingness to take on all comers.
He never backed down from a fight and was one of the most exciting fighters in the sport for nearly a decade.
"People love him so much because of the way he fights, and his style and the type of person that he is," White said. "But it's probably the end of the road for Wanderlei."
It seemed like Ortiz had come to the end of the road, as well. He hadn't won since defeating an aged Ken Shamrock in 2006. In Bader, he was facing a young, confident guy who just five months earlier was fighting Jon Jones for the right to fight for the title.
There has been no love lost between Ortiz and White for a long time and just before Thursday's prefight news conference, the two were seen by reporters in a heated argument. Neither would divulge what the dispute was about, other than White saying it was "typical Dana and Tito [expletive]," but it was just another sign that had Ortiz lost, his career would have been over.
Ortiz, who had been through neck and back surgeries that he said no other athlete would have come back from, credited his health with saving his job.
He was a desperate fighter whose body didn't betray him this time.
"You got to understand, I'm healthy now," Ortiz said following his first win in 57 months. "There's no more excuses. I really put my time into this camp. I went through two major surgeries, which have been my downfall for the last six years. I've been trying to do as much work as I can to get a win, but I came up short, four, five times in a row. Split decisions, draws, decision, decision, but I stayed competitive against top guys in the world.
"I think Ryan kind of didn't respect me. And I let my hands go."
And letting his hands go led to a win leaves him as the last man standing among the UFC veterans who made up the core of the sport in the earlier part of the century. Chuck Liddell retired earlier this year. Randy Couture retired after being knocked out by Lyoto Machida at UFC 129 and Silva's retirement may be imminent after his loss on Saturday.
The sport, though, is in good hands as they exit, because guys like Cruz and Faber are helping to lift it to new heights, both in terms of the quality of their matches as well as the pace at which they fight.
Cruz seemed to control the bout with beautiful footwork, hard kicks, a lot of punches and plenty of movement. He mixed in a few takedowns – CompuStrike had him successful on six of 11 takedown attempts – in a bout that was a perfect topper to a terrific card.
Young fighters who fell in love with the sport after watching Ortiz, Silva, Liddell and Couture are now at the top of it leading it into the future.
"Yes, I think we'll be the next level," Cruz said. "You know, me and Urijah I think kind of set the bar for everything, but for the 135ers especially. We were able to show everybody in the world today that 135ers can headline a card, 145ers can headline a card, and it will be exciting.
"We can compete with heavyweights, 170-pounders, everybody. We all train hard, we all work hard and just because we're little guys, it doesn't mean we can't scrap."
Ortiz and Silva once were among the best and they taught the youngsters well.
Cruz and Faber are the perfect guys to accept the torch and carry MMA into a knockout- and submission-filled future.
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- Wanderlei Silva
- Tito Ortiz
- Urijah Faber
- Dominick Cruz