One minute and fifty-six seconds. That’s how long it took Tito Ortiz to stun TUF 8 winner Ryan Bader and choke him out with a guillotine. That’s also how long it took Ortiz to reverse course on what’s been a four-year and nine-month losing trajectory, and remind one and all something that they’d forgotten of the once great former light-heavyweight champ: he can still win. And his winning is a good thing.
It’s easy to forget that Ortiz was an intrinsic part of the UFC’s rebirth. In 2001, when Zuffa took the reins of the ailing promotion, they adopted as their poster boy the organization’s light-heavyweight champ – and Ortiz, with his sinister image and character and charisma, gladly took the role. It was he, and he alone, who headlined the big, important events. Remember Zuffa’s push to get back onto pay-per-view and make an imprint on the New York City media market? That was around UFC 32, which took place across the Hudson River in New Jersey, and Ortiz was the featured marquee fighter, dancing amidst flames and pyrotechnics to his own tailor-made entrance song. As for the organization’s return to pay-per-view itself – UFC 33 – an injured Ortiz headlined that one, too. Zuffa’s first big grudge match? That was Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock at UFC 40, which made for good business and gave many their first inclination that the sport could eventually grow huge. Sure, new stars have since risen – created in the artificial confines of a TUF House or through their Herculean efforts within the Octagon – but originally it was all about the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy”, a grounding-and-pounding hype machine helping build a new brand.
Of course, none of that means you’ve ever had to like Ortiz. But whether you’ve loved him or hated him over the years, the undeniable common denominator with the Huntington Beach Bad Boy is that he’s capable of evoking emotion. That trait alone has made him resilient in terms of long-term employment. His long-term employment, in turn, has made him one of the legends of the sport.
Let’s face it, the legends have been having a rough time of it as of late. The once mighty Jens Pulver was a shadow of his former self in the WEC, fearsome Chuck Liddell became a sad lesson in excessive head trauma in his Octagon twilight, and Randy Couture – “The Natural”, “Captain America” and representative of everything positive the sport had to offer – went out on his shield (sans tooth) in his UFC exit. Even Wanderlei Silva’s star has fallen. Yes, Silva, who could at one time stand and bang with anyone, but was “out-banged” at the very same event that saw Ortiz victorious. It’s a cruel sport that transforms our heroes into ineffectual punching bags, but that’s part and parcel with the whole “fighting in a cage” thing. Still, watching them fall, one by one in dramatic fashion, is rough. How sweet then the unexpected victory of a legend we’d all written off?
Ortiz landing an improbable win after so long of a dry spell is good for him – he gets to keep a job he was so publicly barely clinging to – and it’s good for the sport. His “W” at 1:56 of the first round means there’s still hope for the old guard when they ride into battle. And it means that we as fans can once more cheer for the fighter at least partly responsible for carrying MMA out of the dark ages and into its renaissance.