At first glance, the Tito Ortiz vs. Forrest Griffin UFC 106 main event seems simple enough to diagnose. It's Ortiz's wrestling against Griffin's active standup, right? It'll be a carbon copy of their UFC 59 matchup, right?
Maybe, but maybe not.
After all, who can really say with any certainty what Ortiz will look like in the octagon after nearly 18 months away from the sport, after surgery, rehab and a taxing training camp? Unless you had eyes in his Big Bear facility, there is really no way of knowing.
In a recent interview with FanHouse, Ortiz acknowledged that it took him more time than normal to get back into fight shape, but that his newly repaired back has easily withstood the rigors of training twice a day.
Of course, in the past, Ortiz has said many things. Some things he said were truthful, and some of them were ... shall we say, hype. The health of his back is a key to this fight, and we just won't know how it will respond until he locks up with Griffin.
We do, however, have some precedent to inject into the situation. Ortiz underwent a surgery similar to that peformed on UFC middleweight Nate Quarry in 2006. In his return bout after 22 months away, Quarry ably fought during a three-round slugfest with Pete Sell, eventually winning by knockout. Quarry has said repeatedly since then that his back feels fine.
Ortiz's pain was so bad that during recent camps, there were some mornings where he'd wake up in such pain that he was incapable of training at all. Given that, you have to wonder how and if the extra time in the gym will pay dividends. Will it manifest itself in more fluidity in his striking? Better movement? More speed? More power?
There are many who think Ortiz is on the downslope as a fighter, but he deserves one more look after getting healthy. The signficance of a healthy back should not be discounted. Back problems can cause issues with other areas of the body including the hips and legs, as well as the respiratory system. If he is truly healthy, some may find themselves surprised at his performance.
So there is the issue of his health, and then there is the issue of his all-around game. While his back may have improved, there have been questions about Ortiz's progression as a fighter over the years, based upon his continued reliance on the takedown.
One thing seems certain: at his core, Ortiz will always rely on his wrestling. The doubt in his future success stems from whether the explosion that marked his takedowns in the early part of his career is back as a result of his surgery and rehab, or if it will forever remain a thing of the past.
This fight should give us an answer right away. In their first encounter, Griffin successfully defended nine of 12 takedown tries, and his takedown defense has improved over the last three years.
Those three successful takedowns in the first fight loomed huge in the final result, as Ortiz did most of his scoring on the ground, landing 48 of his 78 strikes there, according to Compustrike (Ortiz won a split-decision). If Ortiz can take Griffin down, he'll be in good shape. If he can't, the momentum will probably quickly swing towards Griffin.
Griffin's breakneck style usually benefits him in fights that go to the judges' scorecards because of his prodigious output, but the one exception to that is when he gets put on his back. It's no coincidence that the two decision losses in his career are to Ortiz and Dan Severn, another wrestler.
Another factor to remember is that Griffin prefers to take the center of the cage and press the action by coming forward. His career success shows that the tactic has generally worked well for him, but it will also put him in more dangerous positions for the takedown as he walks into Ortiz.
On Saturday, the sharpness of Griffin's takedown defense is likely to decide the outcome again. Since his split-decision loss to Ortiz in April 2006, Griffin has not competed against a single fighter who engaged him in the way Ortiz is likely to. If he can keep the fight upright, he can end his mini-losing streak at two. If not, Ortiz will get his first win since beating Ken Shamrock in Dec. 2006 (since then, he's lost to Chuck Liddell and Lyoto Machida, and fought to a draw with Rashad Evans).
Added to it all is a new mental outlook for Griffin, who said that somewhere along the way, his motivation turned from the love of the sport to the fear of losing. After getting married, Griffin says he is back to his roots, and doing it with a smile on his face. True to his word, during pre-fight interviews and media obligations he seems much looser and more relaxed.
Another close fight is in the offing here. Ortiz is likely to land at least one or two takedowns. On the ground, their jiu-jitsu should cancel each other out, and Ortiz will need to impress the judges with ground-and-pound. On their feet, Griffin will have an edge.
It's a must-win for both men, and I expect this fight to be extremely hard fought as result, with Ortiz inching out a decision.
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