As Tito Ortiz’s level of fame grew, not only as the UFC light heavyweight champion, but as the face of the growing sport of mixed martial arts, a former training partner of his - Chuck Liddell - and a heavyweight champion who had lost two in a row among the big boys – Randy Couture – began making a beeline towards the biggest name in the game.
For his part, Ortiz didn’t want to fight Liddell, someone he considered a buddy, even if “The Iceman” only considered “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” an acquaintance and sometime training partner. So after defeating Ken Shamrock at UFC 40 in November of 2002, Ortiz began the first of some heated negotiation sessions with the UFC. This one cost him nearly a year of his career, and when he came back in September of 2003, Couture had already nabbed a portion of his title by beating Liddell less than three months earlier for the interim belt. What Ortiz and the world didn’t expect was seeing “The Natural” pulling off his second consecutive upset, winning a lopsided five round unanimous decision for the undisputed belt.
At this point, with his aura of invincibility shattered, Ortiz had little choice but to face Liddell if he wanted to get back to the top. In April of 2004, one of the most anticipated bouts in the history of the sport took place, and in the main event of UFC 47, Liddell knocked Ortiz out 38 seconds into the second round.
Bouncing back with wins over Patrick Cote and Vitor Belfort, another contract dispute with the UFC took him out of the organization yet again, but this time, many believed that this would be the last time, that Ortiz’ relationship with his former manager and the current UFC president, Dana White, was beyond repair.
But as the saying goes, never say never, and in November of 2005, Ortiz was brought back, not just to face Forrest Griffin in April of 2006, but to coach the third season of The Ultimate Fighter against Ken Shamrock. It was a brilliant move, as new UFC fans who started following the sport after that year’s premiere of TUF were introduced to one of the game’s long standing stars, and the diehards got to see a different side of “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” as he coached a team of hopefuls toward a UFC contract.
“People that know the real Tito Ortiz already expected that,” he said before the Griffin fight. “People that really didn’t know me, that saw me fighting in the Octagon and just in the Octagon, don’t really understand who I am. I am a giving person, a caring person, and I really care about people who are around me. I think they see the real Tito Ortiz when I am a coach and I’m around them, and not when I’m in the Octagon competing. Those are two separate people – there’s the person that’s in there fighting for his career inside the Octagon and there’s the person who’s fighting for his life outside the Octagon who’s willing to help people out, and who’s always giving. I’m an Aquarius to the tee – I’m always willing to give to those people who are around me; I would pretty much give my left arm for them, and I really want to see the guys on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ excel, I want to see the guys become good fighters and great people. I want to see them excel in life.”
In the Octagon, Ortiz picked up where he left off after the Belfort fight, decisioning Griffin and following it up with back-to-back first round finishes of Shamrock. All that was left was a shot at redemption against Liddell, and the second time around, on December 30, 2006, a title was on the line, adding even more incentive for Ortiz.
"The first time we fought I was in an unhappy place and I didn't want to fight,” he said before the fight. “Now that times are better, I want to get back in the Octagon and continue to dominate."
Ortiz gave a better performance the second time around, but the result was the same, a knockout win for Liddell. The loss kicked off a five fight winless streak for Ortiz that included a draw with Rashad Evans and losses to Lyoto Machida, Griffin, and Matt Hamill. In between, there was another contract battle with the UFC, but more devastating was the back injury that took him out of commission and threatened his career.
“Right after the (Lyoto) Machida fight, I was eating vicodins every single day, and I needed painkillers to make my day go by,” said Ortiz in 2009. “It was starting to be hard on me mentally and physically, and I knew that it was time to really change my gameplan.”
Ortiz estimated that his back issues began around the time of his 2003 loss to Randy Couture, and progressively got worse, with the degeneration of his bulging L4 disc traveling down to the L5-S1 discs. In October of 2008, he got a spinal fusion surgery done, mended fences with White and the UFC, but he still couldn’t even buy a win.
So when he was matched up with Ryan Bader after a second stint coaching The Ultimate Fighter (a second surgery took him out of a third bout with his TUF11 coaching rival, Liddell), there was no beating around the bush from White. With a loss, Ortiz’ UFC career would be over.
“Is it time for me to say goodbye?” he asked before the fight. “Let’s see if I get a win. Maybe I am done, maybe it is time for me to hang ‘em up.”
The great ones always have one great fight left in them though, and I asked Ortiz if he believed this to be true.
“I hope so,” he said with a smile. “I’m training like it. I’ve been putting in the time and the work, I’ve focused a lot on my striking and takedown defense. Against Hamill I didn’t have it that much because I just wanted to punch him in the face, and I’m not gonna make those same mistakes. I hope Bader thinks I’m a stepping stone, that I’m a nobody. He called me out thinking that, and he’s gonna be in a lot of trouble if he thinks that way. He’s gonna have a tough fight on his hands. I’m going in swinging, defending shots, punching and elbowing and doing as much as I possibly can, inflicting as much damage in the quickest amount of time. I’m swinging for the fences and not holding anything back.”
He wasn’t kidding. On fight night in Las Vegas on July 2, 2011, Ortiz turned back the clock with a stunning first round submission of Bader that had the MGM Grand Garden Arena crowd on its feet and roaring. It was an emotional win and one of the biggest feel good moments of this era.
“I stopped being negative and telling people who I was and what I do and this is the way it should be,” he said after the bout. “I ignored the negative stuff and reinforced the positive stuff around me. It changed my outlook on life and my outlook on being a fighter. I really see it as I’m not the bad boy anymore. I’m the people’s champ.”
A month after the Bader bout, he took a short notice rematch with Evans and was stopped, and in December of last year he was halted by Rogerio Nogueira. But at this point, it really didn’t matter. The Bader fight restored the fans’ faith in Tito Ortiz and gave them something to cheer about once again. In 2012, it was announced that Ortiz would fight for the last time against Griffin at UFC 148 this Saturday night in Las Vegas, and that he would be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame on fight day. A perfect ending for Ortiz would obviously be a win, but just going out all guns blazing with a crowd-pleasing bout could be a close second. Yet whatever happens, no one will forget Tito Ortiz.
To read Part One, click here
To read Part Two, click here
The Ortiz Chronicles - The Fall and Rise
Before his final fight against Forrest Griffin at UFC 148 on July 7, we take a look back at Tito Ortiz’ Hall of Fame career in the final installment of a three-part series.