They will always be linked together, but Ortiz hopes there is one distinct difference. Liddell and Couture are both retired now, having said good-bye to the sport in just the last six months, but Ortiz fights on with the hope of extending a career that has been stuck in neutral for some time.
Once the UFC's biggest drawing card, Ortiz was asked by the UFC brass to retire after his most recent loss, a defeat which extended his winless streak to five matches over four years.
Ortiz declined to call it quits, and asked -- "begged," he says bluntly -- for one more chance. The opportunity was granted him to fight fellow veteran Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in March 2011, but a bad cut suffered in training caused him to withdraw. Instead of facing a fellow warhorse of a similar age, Ortiz was thrust into a UFC 132 match with Ryan Bader, a highly regarded 28-year-old who lost for the first time earlier this year.
While the three UFC building blocks all won championships and were dominant at one time, the late stages of their careers were remarkably different. For Liddell, it was his once-iron chin betraying him in ugly knockout losses to Quinton Jackson, Rashad Evans, Mauricio Rua and Rich Franklin that signaled to UFC brass it was time to persuade him to hang up his Hall of Fame gloves. Couture walked away before anyone tried to force him out. Still competitive at the age of 47, Couture had won three fights in a row before announcing that win or lose, his UFC 129 bout against Lyoto Machida would be his swan song. He lost via TKO.
Ortiz is somewhere in between. He is good enough to be competitive, yet winning has eluded his reach.
If Saturday is the end, it's been a long, slow goodbye. He was 31 years old when he last won a fight, an age hardly considered ancient in MMA. Over those five fights, he hasn't ever truly been blown out. He lost via TKO to Liddell back in Dec. 2006 when Liddell was the king of the world, but he never lost consciousness, he was simply overwhelmed by Liddell's aggressiveness and power. That became the first of four straight matches against once or future champions. He fought to a draw with Rashad Evans, lost a unanimous decision to Lyoto Machida, and lost a split decision to Forrest Griffin. Then, last October, he fell once again, this time losing a decision to a decidedly less accomplished fighter, his former protege Matt Hamill.
He's now 36. During the intervening years, Ortiz was slowed down by neck and back injuries that robbed him of the explosiveness that made his double-leg takedown one of the signature moves of early UFC fights in the Zuffa era. Despite his own self-promotion and constant proclamations that he's healthy, when it comes time to fight, Ortiz has been a gunslinger without his favorite weapon.
The trouble with proclaiming his career over, which many have, is that his skills haven't significantly deteriorated; they're simply not as sharp. He's like a once-great but aging running back who can anticipate the hole in the line of scrimmage but can't get to it as quickly as he used to. He's like a fireball pitcher who lost a few miles per hour on his fastball. He knows what he's doing, he's got skills and smarts to stay competitive, but when it becomes a game of reaction and speed, he can't make up the time. Whether that's because of the physical issues that have mounted over the years, or simply the grind of the sport speeding up his clock, Ortiz is simply not the same athlete he once was, and that doesn't make him any different than most 36-year-olds. But when you're trying to compete with kids, the loss of a split-second in reaction time or explosion is often the difference between victory and defeat.
To keep his job, he must win Saturday night. A loss will be the end of his UFC career, one that has spanned over 14 years. Aside from a single 16-second fight that occurred outside of the UFC's Octagon, Ortiz has spent his entire pro run with the promotion. His bout with Bader will mark his 24th fight in the UFC, tying Couture and Matt Hughes for the most all-time. If you're wondering, Liddell is just one behind them with 23.
You can say that Ortiz is part of a dying breed, but in reality, he's the very last one. Vitor Belfort was in the UFC before Ortiz, but he never had the mainstream impact Ortiz could boast, and Hughes came after Zuffa bought the company.
He was at times a lightning rod, a box-office phenom, a Dana White punching bag, and a one-man soap opera. Now, he's a rarity in sports: a high-paid underdog story. But whatever he was, people always cared. And whatever he will be after Saturday, whether he lives to fight another day or is cut and calls it quits, there is one other thing he can say he was: for a moment in time, Ortiz was the best.
Thirty-six is not old, but it's not so young, either. Chuck and Randy are gone, and now it appears time is coming for Tito, too. Memories of the past and a history of importance to the UFC can no longer save him. On Saturday, it's win or go home. If he loses, remarkably, that would mean that the UFC's big three were gone within six months of each other. It would be an ending that is equally fitting and sad, the early power trio going out like dominos in a poetic goodbye.
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