Thursday, July 5, 2012

Total Recall: The Tito Ortiz Edition

According to Tito Ortiz, his sojourn into the Octagon on Saturday night at UFC 148 will be his last, and from here on out he will be one retired-motherfucking-fighter (I'm paraphrasing, and for some reason I have Samuel Jackson on the brain).  The last six years have been rough for the aging fighter, with the sweet taste of victory coming only once in eight tries, so it's not like the time isn't right for Ortiz to hang up the gloves.  It most certainly is.  But the "Huntington Beach Badboy" turned "People's Champ" has been a part of the sport for over fifteen years (going back to his underground fights in California), and he was truly Zuffa's first superstar.  I think that merits a trip down memory lane, no?  The answer to that rhetorical question is "yes, yes it does", so here, for your enjoyment (or not - like I care), is some total recall of everything Tito Ortiz and me, because somehow, someway it's all about me, dammit.
  • Back in 1997 the UFC was banned from pay-per-view, so the only place to watch it in New York City was at a sports bar on the Upper West Side that had a satellite dish (I was in law school in Washington, DC, at the time, so I had to take the bus five hours each way for these somewhat quarterly events).  Picture this: multiple big-screen TVs, all of them showing the action being broadcast from wherever the Octagon was set up, and every chair, table and square foot of the place packed with Renzo Gracie students (plus a few students from other smaller schools), everyone the most ardent of MMA fans (it wasn't even called MMA back then), and everyone cheering.  That was the setting, and on one particular night in May, when UFC 13 was airing live, we all got to see the debut of a big, blond wrestler-type dude with bad attitude for miles.  Ortiz was an alternate in a four-man tournament, and the general rule was that alternates were supposed to be scrubs.  But when he stepped in to replace an injured Enson Inoue and take on Guy Mezger, the tournament favorite, Ortiz kicked some serious ass, losing via guillotine only after referee "Big" John McCarthy screwed him on a missed call.  All of us in that sports bar were Ortiz fans after that performance.
  • The SEG-run UFC knew they had someone special, so Ortiz got another shot in the cage, and again those of us in that sports bar got to see the big, blond dude plow through Jerry Bohlander and then deliver a ten-minute drubbing to Mezger in a rematch.  His success, and post-fight antics and feud against the Lions Den camp, soon had him squaring off against the champ Frank Shamrock, and though Ortiz lost, it was an amazing fight (the rest of the card was meh).
  • Ortiz beat Wanderlei Silva and earned himself the UFC's light-heavyweight belt, crushed Japan's Yuki Kondo, and when New Jersey started sanctioning MMA, the UFC came to Atlantic City and I got to watch in person the champ obliterate Evan Tanner with a slam.  A few months later the UFC touched down at the Meadowlands, so I got to see Ortiz squash an overmatched Elvis Sinosic (and back at the fight hotel, I bought a Punishment Athletics tank top from the man himself; my wife forbade me from wearing it).
  • I was in the audience for UFC 33, which had an injured Ortiz defeating Vladimir Matyushenko in the final bout of an awful card, and I was cageside for the first Ken Shamrock fight - which was truly an experience, because up until then Zuffa hadn't put on an epic event, and this one was motherfucking epic.  As I was Full Contact Fighter's "man on the street" around this time, I saw Ortiz around at a bunch of other UFC events, and he went out of his way to be nice - both to me, and to any fan that wanted to shake his hand and take a picture.  Maybe there were fighters before him who got a taste of that kind of love, but I don't think so.  Ortiz was one of the first (Randy Couture was another, but his image was different; he was the nice guy "yin" to Ortiz's not-so-nice guy "yang").
  • Ortiz fought Patrick Cote in Atlantic City back in 2004, and that was the last time I interacted with him (I think I may have interviewed him at the presser, or maybe I just shook his hand and congratulated him on his fight).  And I admit, watching him fight Forrest Griffin, Ken Shamrock a couple more times, and Chuck Liddell et al., never really moved the needle in terms of generating interest for me (he was an amazing coach on TUF, though).  But I was suddenly excited when he nearly caught Lyoto Machida in a triangle, and when he blitzed Ryan Bader, I was jump-off-my-couch-and-hoot thrilled. 
Alas, the end comes for all fighters eventually, it's that time for Ortiz.  However, the man has done more than most can ever dream of doing, and it was a spectacular run, so I won't be sad for him.  Years from now, when my grandkids gather around my rocking chair and ask for tales of the UFC, Ortiz's story will be one of the first told.

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