Tito Ortiz ponders legacy as he tries to bid farewell with sense of dignity

Tito Ortiz after his bout with Forrest Griffin at UFC 148 on July 7, 2012. (AP)
Tito Ortiz after his bout with Forrest Griffin at UFC 148 on July 7, 2012. (AP)

Tito Ortiz did his best to summon his prime “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” persona during a recent news conference promoting his Bellator 170 fight with Chael Sonnen.

But the delivery was … well, we’ll let him speak for himself.

“I hope Chael’s in great shape because when I’m on top of him, he’s going to [expletive] himself,” Ortiz said of his light heavyweight opponent on Jan. 21 at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif. “I’m going to throw my elbows through his face and like I said, this is no joke.”

Sonnen, the controversial former UFC title contender who is making his Bellator debut after a two-and-a-half-year absence from the sport, has always had a superb sense of timing in his verbal deliveries, and he responded to Ortiz’s attempted quip with a quizzical bemusement.

“I think he just asked me to go to the bathroom on him, which was a little weird,” Sonnen deadpanned. “He just rattled off all his bullets there.”

Ortiz tried to keep up.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Ortiz said. “I’m sitting here listening to the tone that Chael has and it sounds like he’s drowning and on January 21, he’s going to be drowning in his own blood.”

“I told you he was out of bullets,” Sonnen shot back.

Thus it went for former UFC light heavyweight champion Ortiz as the promotion for the Viacom-backed Bellator’s first major event of 2017 kicked off.

He has proclaimed the bout with Sonnen will be his retirement fight. If the kickoff news conference is any indication, regardless of what goes down in the cage, the buildup will be a mismatch – Ortiz has long been known for mangled syntax and Sonnen is one of mixed martial arts’ master trash talkers.

But while it’s been easy to make fun of Ortiz’s penchant for malapropisms over the years, there’s no doubt his final career chapter made an impact few could have predicted when it was announced in 2013 that he would sign with Bellator.

Ortiz, whose feuds with the likes of Ken Shamrock and Chuck Liddell helped fuel the MMA boom a decade ago, retired following a controversial split decision loss to Forrest Griffin at UFC 148 in July 2012 – a card headlined by Sonnen’s famous second bout with rival Anderson Silva – and Ortiz was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame.

When he came out of retirement to join Bellator, the move was questioned, particularly when a neck injury forced him out of his return bout with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.

But Ortiz answered all his critics on Nov. 15, 2014. A bout with Stephan Bonnar, which had been widely mocked in the buildup, did a monster rating of over 2 million viewers – a company record at the time. Fans choosing to watch Ortiz’s decision victory on basic cable almost assuredly did a number on the buy rate for UFC 180, which ran head-to-head with the Bellator show.

In the wake of the Ortiz-Bonnar success, Bellator got aggressive in signing veteran names with ratings mileage left, such as Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock and the late Kimbo Slice. That, in turn, led to Bellator-owned Viacom opening the checkbook to sign a gaggle of in-their-prime UFC fighters, such as Phil Davis, Benson Henderson, Matt Mitrione, and Rory MacDonald.

Would this seismic shift in the sport’s landscape have happened if the ratings tanked the night of the Ortiz-Bonnar fight? It’s not a stretch to say that Ortiz helped usher in the era of MMA free agency.

Which is why Sonnen, the latest beneficiary of Bellator’s largesse, makes it clear the respect he has for what Ortiz has done, even as he pokes fun at his opponent’s mangled analogies.

“He was there from the beginning,” the 39-year-old Sonnen said. “He was the one making the big money when I was just trying to break in. I was jealous; he was the guy I wanted to be. I have nothing but respect for what he’s accomplished. I’m pumped to be in there with a Hall of Famer like Tito.”

While Ortiz could barely wait for his UFC non-compete clause to end before signing with Bellator back in 2013, there’s little reason to doubt he means it this time when he says he’s walking away from the sport for good.

Ortiz will turn 42 just two days after the Sonnen fight. He has often been mocked for his frequent references to his physical ailments, specifically for his knack for bringing them up right after defeats. But he has gone through a lifetime of combat sports, and came up in MMA during the age in which training methods were a lot less sophisticated and a lot more brutal than they are today. Eventually, even when the spirit is willing, the body can no longer keep up.

“My biggest enemy has been my surgeries,” Ortiz said. “I’ve had an ACL replaced in my left knee, ACL replaced in my right knee, 50 percent of my meniscus taken out of my right knee, lower-back fusion, C-6, C-7 fused in my neck, C-5, C-4 disk replacement, C-4, C-3 fused. I have 26, 27 concussions, hundreds of stitches, I’ve been through the grinder. My biggest enemy has been my body.”

No doubt, the next week and change will bring more headlines in which Sonnen ties Ortiz into verbal knots. But it’s just as assured that Ortiz’s final career chapter was more impactful to the sport than anyone had the right to anticipate.

As long as he’s remembered for those contributions, Ortiz seems willing to let the constant slings and arrows slide.

“I want to be remembered as a fighter with integrity,” Ortiz said. “A fighter who did it this way, who has respect because he wanted to push the envelope for the fighters.”

Tito Ortiz was a fervent supporter of President-elect Donald Trump during the 2016 U.S. election. (AP)
Tito Ortiz was a fervent supporter of President-elect Donald Trump during the 2016 U.S. election. (AP)

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