Tito Ortiz is unquestionably the biggest draw in mixed martial arts. He’s set the sport’s records for cable ratings and pay per view buys, remaining a constant in fan’s discussions whether he’s fighting or not. The long time face of the sport left the alleged mistreatment of Zuffa in summer 2008 for the greener pastures of Pro Elite and Affliction. But by the winter of 2008, the landscape has changed dramatically: Pro Elite is incrementally being sold, Affliction is on its last legs if you’re being generous, and the UFC’s biggest draws have fallen in the eyes of fans.
A portion of fans suspected the courting of Tom Atencio and the Shaw’s was a power play by Ortiz so he’d gain leverage in negotiations with Dana White and Zuffa. Those aces in the hole for Tito now mean nothing and a return to the UFC is inevitable (like Skynet becoming self-aware). The sound of cash registers is enticing to both parties and refusing to come to terms would cost them both business.
For Ortiz, he will have to contend with the fact that he will no longer be with the largest and most profitable promotion in the sport he built. The less time for him in front of cameras means the less money Punishment Athletics makes, and possibly less for his newborn twins. For the UFC, it’d be another top name fighter crossed off the dwindling list of who could create big money fights.
The three biggest fighters in the UFC all lost pivotal fights, and face, since Tito left the company. Matt Hughes, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture all now contend with calls for retirement from sizeable portions of the MMA community. The successors to Hughes and Couture in their weight classes, Georges St-Pierre and Brock Lesnar respectively, are superstars in the MMA world. The Light Heavyweight division does not have the same blessing unfortunately. Rashad Evans is still a forgettable name to casual fans and his knockout of Liddell is seen more as just another example of Chuck’s skills degrading with age. Evans is too bland of a personality to generate interest in a fight without the right opponent.
The UFC has combined the four biggest names in the Light Heavyweight division for their final show of 2008. Wanderlei Silva rematches Quinton Jackson and Forrest Griffin defend his title belt against Evans in the main event of the year’s biggest card. Any combination of Silva, Griffin and Jackson would make for high-profile and exciting fights, but it doesn’t bode well for the company that the black sheep of the quintet, Rashad Evans, wouldn’t be enticing to pay for even with a championship around his waist. The proper storyline for Griffin/Evans is solid: The Ultimate Fighter I Champion vs. The Ultimate Fighter II Champion. It’s simple and effective; it will no doubt be utilized again in February 2009 when Diego Sanchez fights Joe Stevenson. But Forrest Griffin is the only opponent who can create pathos with Evans, as essentially the same storyline with Ultimate Fighter III winner Michael Bisping caused UFC 78 to garner one of the lowest domestic pay per view buyrates of 2007.
What is overlooked by an astounding number of people is the fact that Ortiz has defeated the three men he has fought in that group: Silva at UFC 25, Griffin at UFC 59, and Evans at UFC 73. Tito DEFEATED Rashad but does not hold a win over him. Both men’s fence grabbing swung to Evans’ favor and forced a draw from a subtracted point, meaning Ortiz beat him but a technicality resulted in three 28-28 score cards (another reason to hate math, sorry Jorge and Rich Franklin).
Tito Ortiz’s stock wasn’t hurt in his most recent fight as much as some think. Lyoto Machida is a fighter nobody can look good against. He still does not have name value and casual fans just memmer his atrocious match with Kazuhiro Nakamura or his admittedly impressive victory over Sokoudjou. Stephan Bonnar, BJ Penn, nor Rich Franklin have any positives that stem from their losses to Machida and the fights even had negative impacts on their careers (Bonnar’s scar tissue, BJ’s eroded stamina, Franklin’s weight). Tito Ortiz is the only person who has come out of a Lyoto match with an addition to his highlight reel. He threw a Triangle choke on late in the third round and had Machida dead to rights; the only thing that kept the win from Tito was a miscalculated Armbar attempt. Only two things of note happened during that fifteen minutes and Tito’s near submission comes to mind before Machida’s knee to the body does. Ortiz made the man who was seen as untouchable (and elusive to attention spans) look human. That’s something Penn, Franklin, Bonnar and soon Thiago Silva will not have the ability to say they’ve done.
Tito Ortiz against the winners or losers of both fights can do business. Each possible fight with all four men have built-in storylines that could easily be successful on a large scale:
- Ortiz vs. Jackson – Quinton is the only one of the four that Tito has not fought already. Both have said they’d be open to a fight if the right money was put in front of them, despite being good friends and occasional training partners. It’s a fight that would be interesting to casual fans because of the names and hype but still important to the hardcores, as it’s also fantasy match up that has been talked about for years. The UFC could do the same story Rey Mysterio Jr. and the late Eddie Guerrero used at Wrestlemania 21; that of friends who just want to see who is the better of the two. While it lacks the punch of Tito’s similar feud with Chuck Liddell or Marcus Aurelio and Hermes Franca’s, the fight’s appeal would be immensely elevated based on the interview skills Rampage and Tito possess. A five minute sit-down interview with both men on ESPN done correctly would all but guarantee over half a million pay per view buys.
- Ortiz vs. Evans II – The first fight was underwhelming. Tito started strong and faded; Evans started weak and got a slam in by the end. Again this fight is the least desired of the bunch but unlike Rashad vs. anyone else, it has the benefit of at least having a base to be built upon. Both men grabbed the fence and only Tito got a point deducted. Ortiz is the rightful winner but they’ll finally be able to settle it in a rematch. If worst comes to worst the fight would at least do a big number on Spike. Really though, Tito already won and nobody cares to see a rematch.
- Ortiz vs. Silva II – Tito was twenty-five years old and Wanderlei was just shy of twenty-four when they first met for the UFC Middleweight at UFC 25 in April 2000. It has almost been nine years since then and both have built up legendary careers. Silva became the most dominant Light Heavyweight in PRIDE after losing the fight, Tito stayed in the UFC to do the same after winning. Wanderlei went five and a half years before losing to another 205 pounder and Tito’s undefeated streak went just days over four years. Both men have questions about where they are in their careers. Wanderlei has looked good only twice since summer 2005, against Fujita and Jardine, Ortiz, some will argue, not at all recently. They’re both different fighters now but many of the same questions remain: Can Tito stand up to a powerful striker? How will he fair against someone he can’t take down? Is his cardio what it used to be? Is Wanderlei still incapable of dealing with a bullying grappler? Has he taken too much damage over the years? Could Ortiz drop him with punches again? All of those would be answered in a rematch and would tell a lot about both men. It would be the measuring stick for how much further either could go at this point. I’d wanna know if Tito would wear another shirt that said “I Killed The Axe Murderer”, though.
- Ortiz vs. Griffin II – Of course this is the fight that would line everyone’s pockets the most. Fur coats for everyone kind of money. The first meeting at UFC 59 in April 2006 really turned a lot of people on to Forrest’s potential and (temporarily) silenced the anti-Ultimate Fighter crowd. Ortiz came out and dominated round one with ground and pound. Vince Verhei from Figure Four Weekly perfectly described the round by asking “Can you give a 10-7?” Round two was Forrest’s, screaming in the corner before the start of it and peppering Tito with hooks and crosses. The third round could have gone either way, with Ortiz picking it up because of a late takedown. It was the perfect result for business: Forrest gained a lot of fans and respect but Tito got the controversial decision, allowing The Ultimate Fighter III to keep UFC 61 hot and set the buyrate record. Griffin has gone on to beat both the consensus number one ranked fighters at the time of the matches in Shogun Rua and Quinton Jackson. They were legit wins with no excuses (Sorry Mr. Thomas). The fight with Tito really solidified the gritty and hardworking persona of Griffin that is still being marketed heavily today. Ortiz is still capable of having a competitive fight with Griffin, but a win for Forrest would potentially further galvanize his title reign by avenging a loss. Not only that, but it would set up a potential rubber match if need be.
An Ortiz/Griffin rematch for the title is by far the biggest drawing fight the UFC could put together at 205 pounds in 2009 short of Randy dropping back down or Chuck getting his act together. If you don’t believe Tito could still do well in the main event mix then ideally you’d see just how easy it’d be to continue with him as a top name. Ortiz vs. anyone live on Spike would do fantastic numbers and make tons of money. There are plenty of guys Tito is able to beat, like Jardine, Vera, Hamill, Franklin, Henderson, Cane, Thiago Silva, so keeping him in a co-main event spot would be beneficial as well.
It’s a fact: Tito Ortiz makes money for the UFC. The UFC makes money for Tito Ortiz. They both need to sit down and work something out, if at the very least for the fans’ sake. It’s like staying together for the kids, if your kids were a bunch of papers with Alexander Hamilton on them:
“This is like, two $5 foot longs!”
Merry Christmas everybody.