Even for older fans of the sport who had been following when the UFC was owned by SEG and only available on VHS, the idea that Tito Ortiz was going to go on an epic losing skid seemed highly improbable.
He started the sport young, fighting for free at UFC 13, and to be honest he just seemed too powerful and rude to suffer any kind of serious derailment. In combative sports, many a black hat has enjoyed a fruitful career, usually at the expense of others, and Ortiz seemed to fit that bill perfectly.
It seemed that we as fans would just have to get used to his disrespectful post-fight shirts, his overblown ego and so on. But by now we have grown accustomed to the fact that Ortiz is but a shadow of his former self.
After his second loss to Chuck Liddell at UFC 66, we watched the slow but undeniable decline of Ortiz, fight by fight. Where he used to be explosive, he became pondering; what used to be a sure takedown via a powerful double-leg shot became a predictable and easily avoidable movement that looked desperate.
And as much as he wanted to be the man feared for the power in his fists, he was never really all that great with is stand-up to begin with. In fact, he looked better with his hands in the early days because he attacked with the conviction that comes when you think you’re unbeatable.
As soon as he got his chin checked, things changed and he adapted as best he could, which turned out to be pretty damn good in his younger years.
But after UFC 66, nothing was ever the same.
Ironically, for many older fans, Ortiz became one of the last links between our era of the sport and the current post-The Ultimate Fighter landscape. Both are equally excellent, but when fighters of a certain generation begin to falter and retire, the remaining threads to older times and events that we anticipated and enjoyed—just as much as newer fans will the upcoming UFC 175 card—are severed.
Those who used to dislike Ortiz for his post-fight antics suddenly found themselves rooting for him simply because he was one of the last remaining fighters of the early days.
But it became very clear in his bouts against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and his rematch with Rashad Evans that time waits for no one. When he announced his retirement, it was honestly long overdue, even if he had shown signs of life in his upset victory over Ryan Bader.
But then he signed with Bellator and seemed to have something to prove, even if only to himself. Perhaps it really is nothing more than a fighter unable to accept that his time has come and gone; growing old gracefully is not a virtue seized by everyone, no matter how much we may wish it so.
But there may be a positive to be had for Ortiz in Bellator if he honestly decides to make an earnest run at being a fighter one last time.
Ortiz is clearly not ready for the level of fighter that competes under the UFC banner, at least not now. But he may be ready to utilize his experience and remaining natural gifts to their greatest advantage against opponents who are a step down in experience, training and athleticism.
Before Arturo Gatti engaged in his first epic war with Micky Ward, his managers had recognized that he was beginning to show all the signs of a fighter nearing the end. Since his competitive fire was still there, they began to give him easier fights while his trainers went about the job of rebuilding him for the final stage of his career.
This stratagem could work just as well for Ortiz, if he works with the kind of camp that can build a new style that utilizes his strengths while minimizing his weaknesses. While all of this is far easier said than done, should Ortiz manage to get a few wins under his belt, his confidence may empower his training and vice versa, allowing him to go forward with a newer understanding of what he needs to do to compete with the newer class of fighters in today’s landscape.
Additionally, if Ortiz continues to taste defeat at this level, then it should leave no doubt within him that his days as a fighter of note are honestly over.
For every fighter who enjoys great success, the time when it ends cannot be anything but bittersweet at best. Recognizing that the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long is no doubt a struggle, but if Ortiz does indeed learn his days as a fighter are over, he can do so knowing that he exhausted all options.
And during his time, his candle did burn very brightly.