LAS VEGAS – Tito Ortiz is not the best fighter in UFC history. He's far from it, actually.
He's won only one fight in the last five-plus years.
But when the UFC finishes its 20th full year of existence in November, Ortiz won't be far from the top of the list of its most significant figures.
Ortiz will be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame on Saturday, a few hours before he walks to the cage at the MGM Grand Garden to meet Forrest Griffin in the co-main event of UFC 148. The bout will mark the finale of his illustrious career.
The UFC, and the sport of mixed martial arts, will be much lesser without him a part of it.
It's clearly a marketing gimmick that the UFC chose Saturday to induct Ortiz, but what really matters is that he's in and getting the recognition he's deserved for relentlessly pushing mixed martial arts toward mainstream acceptance.
He debuted at UFC 13 in 1997, when MMA was banned from cable television and fighting a perception that it was a lawless rogue sport.
Ortiz was charismatic, colorful and frequently outrageous, but he tirelessly pushed the fact that the fighters were world-class athletes and that MMA deserved to be taken seriously as a sport.
He answered thousands of questions from reporters who had never seen an MMA fight before speaking to him. His patience was legendary and, eventually, his message resonated.
By the middle of the last decade, the rest of the world began to catch on to what Ortiz had long been preaching: The fighters were world-class athletes who were, for the most part, in great condition, and the sport was every bit as legitimate as football, baseball, basketball and hockey.
The sport might not have survived the human cock fighting era had casino moguls Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta not come along and poured millions of dollars into building the UFC into a burgeoning sports empire, but money alone wasn't going to save the sport.
It needed athletes the public could count on to spread the word. Ortiz literally criss-crossed the country in those early years, talking to anyone who would listen.
All the while, he was one of its elite competitors. His five successful light heavyweight title defenses and six consecutive title fight wins remains a divisional record. He's no longer near the fighter he once was, but even as he comes to the finish line, he's good enough to compete against the best.
There are some light heavyweights in the UFC who simply aren't good enough to ever be put into the cage with a Rashad Evans, an Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, or a Griffin. Ortiz, though, is still largely competitive despite going just 1-6-1 in his last eight outings.
"Tito is part of the fabric of our sport and of the history of our company," UFC chairman Lorenzo Fertitta said. "He's given his life to mixed martial arts and gave all of us some memorable moments as both a fighter and a personality outside the Octagon. He was a lock to go into the UFC Hall of Fame at some point, and I'm happy we could make this happen now so he gets to enter the Octagon for the final time as a reigning Hall of Famer. I think this will be an emotional goodbye for Tito and one final special moment for his fans."
Ortiz helped save the UFC at a time when the Fertittas were reconsidering their investment. His two fights with arch rival Chuck Liddell, at UFC 47 and at UFC 66, were major events that did serious pay-per-view sales and were the first tangible signs that Zuffa's business plan was taking root.
Ortiz took on all comers – he fought seven men who at one point held the light heavyweight belt in the UFC and another who had it in PRIDE – and he fought when he was badly injured.
He was emotional when he learned he was going into the Hall of Fame and have no doubt that he'll be emotional late Saturday when he's introduced as a Hall of Famer.
[Related: Watch UFC 148 live on Yahoo! Sports]
"To be inducted into the Hall of Fame is final proof that all the hard work and dedication, all the pain and sacrifices, were all worth it," Ortiz said. "To be able to walk to the Octagon one last time as an official UFC Hall of Fame level fighter is going to be humbling and awesome. I'm very grateful to have this opportunity to end my career on such a high like this."
Ortiz helped usher the UFC into the modern era. The young fighters, who make large salaries and earn lucrative endorsements, have Ortiz to thank. Those who fight on Saturday would be wise to acknowledge his impact upon their careers publicly.
He battled his way to significance, inside the cage and out. He did it with class, he did it with flair and, as Frank Sinatra sang in his marquee song, Ortiz did it his way. The final three sentences of that song seem as if they were written specifically for Ortiz.
To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels.
The record shows I took the blows and did it my way!
The record shows I took the blows and did it my way!
Yes, it was my way.
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