Ortiz’s UFC final could be tonight
It was 11 years ago when Tito Ortiz began his mixed-martial arts career, fighting for no money and little fanfare outside his inner circle of friends from Huntington Beach.
That quickly changed as Ortiz, riding on immense popularity, helped build the Ultimate Fighting Championships from the underground up.
With him, UFC events have been sellouts in Las Vegas. With him, the UFC has had some of the most-watched pay-per-view events in its history. After tonight, the UFC will be without him. Maybe.
At the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Ortiz will make what he said would be his final appearance with the UFC. The main event in the sold-out UFC 84 belongs to lightweight champion B.J. Penn and the division’s former title holder, Sean Shirk, who was stripped of his belt last year after testing positive for steroids. But eyes are on Ortiz (16-5-1) as he takes on undefeated light-heavyweight Lyoto Machida (12-0).
The 33-year-old Ortiz said he would have preferred to finish his career with the organization that launched him into the stratosphere of MMA fighters, but his relationship with UFC President Dana White, his former manager, has kept that from happening.
What began souring five years ago took an ugly turn last week during a conference call promoting tonight’s fight.
In that call, White was not kind, calling Ortiz a liar and ridiculing his business acumen (Ortiz has a multimillion-dollar clothing line) and fighting ability. White then said he has never hoped one of his fighters would get beaten in the caged octagon, but he wished that upon Ortiz.
Those remarks were the final straw for Ortiz. On Tuesday, a few hours before departing for Las Vegas from his training camp in Big Bear, he said there was “zero chance” of re-signing with the UFC.
“The conference call last week shut the door 100%,” he said. “Dana is a monster. He’s a class-act bully and that’s what it comes down to.”
White purchased the UFC in 2001, investing with casino moguls Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta. Though popular with hard-core fans at the time, MMA was often compared to human cockfighting.
White sought to change that through clever marketing. He gave away hundreds of tickets to a UFC event at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, inviting cable company executives and the mainstream media. The organization lost $2.4 million that night, but increased the sport’s visibility and lessened the stigma.
By that time, Ortiz was the UFC light-heavyweight champion, a title he defended five times before losing to Randy Couture in September 2003.
Ortiz was considered unbeatable in the octagon in those early years. But in the months leading up to the Couture fight, Ortiz said, he was the first to publicly question the UFC’s monetary disbursements to its fighters. He held out for more money and tried unsuccessfully to persuade other fighters to do the same.
“These guys,” Ortiz said recently, referring to the UFC, “are getting a big lump sum out of us and they’re not giving anything back.”
When Ortiz’s contract expired in early 2005, his charisma and skills were sought by other MMA and wrestling organizations, yet he ended up re-signing with the UFC.
He proved his value once more when he took on Ken Shamrock in a rematch in the summer of 2006, contributing to the highest-grossing pay-per-view event in the sport’s history. That record was smashed when Ortiz lost to Chuck Liddell in a rematch later that year.
The record numbers, however, didn’t ease the tensions.
For the last nine weeks, Ortiz has been training at high altitude in Big Bear, the longest camp of his career.
“I came up here . . . and really focused on working on my core strength,” he said. “We’re doing everything we used to do when I wasn’t injured, so I’m focused.”
White has matched Ortiz up against a tough opponent in Machida, a Shotokan karate practitioner.
Though the southpaw can seem dull at times, Machida has few noticeable weaknesses. Early in his career, he defeated Penn by decision.
Several oddsmakers have made the Brazilian the favorite against Ortiz, whose best bet is to get his hands on Machida and inflict his renowned ground-and-pound technique.
Whether Ortiz wins or loses tonight, he doesn’t plan to retire. He has several MMA organizations in mind, and may even start his own.
“I know the fans are going to follow me, " Ortiz said, “because they love watching an exciting fight.”
What: Ultimate Fighting Championship 84.
Where: MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas.
When: Today, first bout at 4:25 p.m.
TV: PPV, 7 p.m.
Featured bouts: B.J. Penn vs. Sean Sherk, lightweight; Wanderlei Silva vs. Keith Jardine, light-heavyweight; Tito Ortiz vs. Lyoto Machida, light-heavyweight.