"Oh, look... there he goes with that stupid 'Gravedigger' routine. God, I really, REALLY, hate that guy!"
-- Me, watching Tito Ortiz, circa 1997-2006.
"Oh, look... there he goes with that 'Gravedigger' routine... and he just beat Ryan Bader! Awesome!"
-- Me, watching Tito Ortiz, circa 2011
My, my, what a difference five years can make. Better yet, what a difference five years of watching a formerly dominant fighter constantly coming up short can make.
I have always hated "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy" Tito Ortiz. Couldn't stand him. I used to groan every time I'd see him strutting to the Octagon. I don't know what it is, but there's something about watching someone like Tito (as in, a superb athlete who isn't shy about being a superb athlete) that really makes my blood boil.
I got so tired of seeing him do that goofy little hop-step out to the cage, I got tired of his ground-and-pound and I obviously got extra tired of his "Gravedigger" routine. He was just so damn good at what he did, and there was nothing I wanted more than for him to get his mouth shut.
Then, it happened. Randy Couture, who was a heavy underdog going into the fight, was the man who finally put the beating on ol' Tito to capture the light heavyweight championship at UFC 44. There was no "Gravedigger" this time. No braggadocios postfight interview. No nothing. Tito Ortiz was dominated for five full rounds, and he was no longer the UFC Champion. He was beaten up, literally spanked, by an old man...and it was awesome.
Tito would go on to get destroyed by Chuck Liddell in his next fight at UFC 47, but he actually went on a five-fight winning streak following that loss. He had me, and probably everyone else, thinking it was just a matter of time before he was back in the saddle with his championship belt again.
That was not to be.
In order for that to happen, he had to go through "The Iceman." Once again, the two rivals met, and once again, Liddell easily defeated Ortiz. That's where the downhill slide began, in December of 2006, and it wouldn't stop until July of 2011. Tito Ortiz, formerly the untouchable Bad Boy of the UFC, didn't win a fight for nearly a half-decade following the loss to Chuck Liddell.
Somewhere during those five years, Tito became what Randy Couture had been for the last several years of his career: the old dog. He was still a respectable fighter, but it was rare that he was ever expected to win a fight. It was during this time that people, myself included, began to rethink their opinion of "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy."
Once we were given a break from seeing him constantly winning, bragging and gravedigging, we were allowed to appreciate him for what he was: a true pioneer of the sport, and one of the all-time greatest champions in the history of mixed martial arts. Seeing him lose so consistently, more or less, made people want to see him win again.
That's why, when Ortiz did the unthinkable in stopping Ryan Bader in the first round of their fight at UFC 132, fans were quick to cheer him...just like they did for Randy Couture when he did the unthinkable by unseating Tim Sylvia as the UFC heavyweight champion back in 2007. Everyone likes to see an older fighter have that "one more run," before his career comes to a halt.
This weekend, Tito Ortiz has the opportunity to have just that. If he can overcome the odds one more time, and stop Rashad Evans in a way that is comparable to how he defeated Ryan Bader, Tito Ortiz might just be the next in line for a UFC light heavyweight title fight. The UFC has just happened upon their latest Rocky Balboa story, and I couldn't be more hooked.
I'm not sure Tito can pull it off and make the fairy tale into a reality, but I am sure of one thing: I'll be rooting for him. I'll be rooting for him, and so will most of the MMA community.
Everyone loves an underdog.