When Tito Ortiz was the reigning light heavyweight champion for the last time, stepping into the Octagon to face Randy Couture at UFC 44, the year was 2003.
While I thought there was a good chance he might lose his title, I never envisioned the day when Ortiz would retire.
He was young, strong and fierce, and it looked as if he still had a good 15 years in him. After all, the man he was facing that night, Randy Couture, was 40 and still taking titles and names, so why not Ortiz?
Tonight, after a spirited loss to Forrest Griffin, Ortiz walked out of the octagon for the last time, a mere nine years after walking out sans his light heavyweight belt on the night Randy Couture defeated him in a five-round rout.
There have been a lot of low points during the tail end of Ortiz’s career, but a man is not the sum total of his lowest moments. When considering a career like Ortiz’s, they are continually weighed against his greatest moments, and Ortiz was indeed a very bright candle, especially during that bleak period of MMA history that saw "The Dark Shows" rolling by in relative silence.
He managed to rekindle some of that flame in his last bout with Griffin, knocking the TUF winner down with heavy punches and scoring takedowns, but he simply isn’t the same fighter who pushed and shoved everyone out of his way to get the title.
Ortiz was the first true black hat of any real note in the UFC. He was young and cocky as well, running his mouth before running all over his opponents using his size, power and wrestling to toss around Jerry Bohlander and Guy Mezger.
Then, very early in his career, he engaged in a true war for the ages, fighting the great Frank Shamrock at UFC 22. Ortiz was winning the fight on all cards going into the forth round, but then Shamrock proved why he was one of the best in history, taking Ortiz out late in Round 4.
Ortiz bounced back, defeated Wanderlei Silva to win the belt Shamrock left behind, and from there began a season of destruction that lasted near three years and saw him defend his title five times.
That period in the life of Ortiz—which saw him elevated to the closest thing the sport had to a superstar back then—was perhaps the main reason Ortiz kept on coming back, fully convinced he could win the championship again. He had such a stranglehold on the title that losing it must have seemed a temporary setback at best.
No longer the top dog in the weight class, Ortiz still fought, racking up five straight wins in order to get a title shot against Chuck Liddell at UFC 66. After Liddell defeated him again, the fights kept rolling along and he began to slip further and further down the ladder.
The sport was growing faster than ever, and with that came a flood of new talent; younger fighters, hungry for glory and eager to be the next big thing. Even then, as more fighters began to lay claim to a spotlight that used to belong to Ortiz and a select few, he continued to be a draw because of his image and the history attached.
The saga of Ortiz seems to be forever linked to Ken Shamrock, Liddell and Dana White—three men who have had a bitter relationship with him and have also helped elevate his status, keeping him with the company during his downhill skid that lasted so long.
He has always been one of the most well-known faces from the UFC, both for the sheer number of times he’s fought in the Octagon, and for all the attention he’s brought the sport with his inflammatory t-shirts, hard talk and epic feuds.
During his title reign, he had perhaps the most dedicated and loyal fan bases in all of MMA. To suggest that anyone could defeat Ortiz was to face the full wrath of thousands who constantly took to the Internet in defense of their man.
Ortiz wasn’t just liked in his time at the top, he was loved.
Last night, Ortiz walked out of the cage for the last time. In doing so he brings to an end a long losing streak that never saw his drawing ability diminished, never saw his die-hard fans waiver in their support.
But his retirement also does more than that; it signifies the end of an era. Ortiz was the last of a series of fighters from the early days who entertained us with some incredible bouts while continuing to elevate the sport at a time when no one was watching it and more than a few powerful people wanted to see it die.
Liddell, Couture, Shamrock, Mezger, Bohlander, Mark Coleman, Don Frye, Oleg Taktarov, Royce Gracie, Matt Hughes, Jens Pulver, BJ Penn and so many others are either cleanly retired or standing at the brink. Ortiz was one of the biggest names of that generation of fighters, and with his exit from the sport comes the closing of one of the more storied and entertaining sagas in MMA.
Whether you watched to see him reign or tuned in to see him fall, from start to finish Ortiz was a constant draw the UFC and the MMA community could depend upon.
Not bad for a fighter who started in the sport as an angry young man, fighting for free.
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