Jon Jones and Tito Ortiz: A closer look at two of the top light heavyweights ever

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Now that Jon Jones has tied Tito Ortiz's record for light heavyweight title defenses, we take a closer look at their careers, how they are similar, and their impacts on the sport.

Jon Jones' fifth consecutive light heavyweight title defense at UFC 159, finishing Chael Sonnen, leads to natural comparisons with Tito Ortiz, whose record he tied.

Ortiz was UFC's light heavyweight champion from 2000 to 2003 when he defended his title five times and set the record. It has since been broken by Anderson Silva as the longest lasting champion in UFC history. And even after losing the belt to Randy Couture, Ortiz was arguably UFC's most well-known star and biggest drawing card for three more years.

The sport, and the business, were completely different in those days. When Ortiz first won the title, it almost seemed like it was in need of miracle to survive, to the point Joe Rogan, then one of UFC's biggest fans, would joke about how maybe some day a crazy billionaire would buy the thing.

Ortiz suggested if he was still in his prime, and faced Jones today, he would win. That's a tough one to swallow.

While Ortiz suggested this past Monday on The MMA Hour that if he was still in his prime, and faced Jones today, that he would win, well, that's a tough one to swallow.

Ortiz was essentially big for his weight class power wrestler at a time when the depth of talent in the sport, particularly in the United States, and quality of the athletes, couldn't compare to today. But even in power wrestling, Ortiz, who couldn't implement his game against a number of the wrestlers he faced, would come up short against Jones.

In striking and speed, they aren't even close. Ortiz retired last year with a 16-11-1 record. Jones is 18-1, and that loss to Matt Hamill remains the single most one-sided destruction ever listed as a loss in UFC history.

In short, Jones rag dolled a wrestler who was Ortiz's equal, if not better. Jones threw several dozen unanswered elbows on the ground on Hamill, waiting for the referee to stop it. By the time he did, Hamill was helpless, with a separated shoulder, and unable to move. But the referee ruled the last few elbows were of the dreaded 12-to-6 variety, and Jones was disqualified. It seemed ridiculous that night, and seems borderline criminal with the benefit of hindsight.

But the careers of Ortiz and Jones had some common threads. Both started as high school wrestlers. They were both among the youngest champions in UFC history. Both shocked fans early on by beating better known veterans. Both had their fans, but it appeared for as many fans that loved them, there were an equal amount who hated them. Both ended up in the cross hairs of UFC president Dana White at times. And both men's most talked about career match was against a former training partner that each had at one point claimed they would never fight. But while Ortiz had his big wins, and big losses, nobody has still been able to do anything to Jones.

But there is one category Ortiz has over Jones, and may always have, even if he shatters his records with subsequent wins. Ortiz played a key part in the UFC still being around. And he also had a level of personal charisma that Jones has at times shows flashes of, but never was able to fully develop.

For better, and often for worse, Ortiz was the type of person who always stood out in any crowd. Any time he was at a UFC press conference, even after a fight where he'd lost in a relatively one-sided fashion, he was always the center of attention.

While Jones is his athletic and fighting superior by a wide margin, and at 25, already should be considered as one of the five greatest fighters in the sport's history, Ortiz is still likely to end up as the more historically significant light heavyweight.

Some of that was timing. You could make a fairly strong case that if there had not been a Tito Ortiz, the UFC would not exist today. You couldn't make such case for Jones as a difference maker. UFC would be around, and be every bit as popular as it is today, whether Jones came along or not.

When Ortiz was champion, the light heavyweight belt was the key one in the company. He drew the biggest crowds, and it was his fights that showed the company there was at least a ray of hope that some day it would be successful.

You can argue Jones may be UFC's best fighter today, and he may some day be viewed as the historical all-time best, a category Ortiz is not up for consideration in.

But Jones does not draw the biggest crowds, and the light heavyweight division is not the company's signature weight class right now.

Ortiz debuted on May 30, 1997, as a 22-year-old alternate, who fought as an amateur so he could maintain his college wrestling eligibility as part of the powerhouse Cal State-Bakersfield squad. Due to an eye injury, Enson Inoue could not come out for a tournament final against Guy Mezger, who by that point was already a major star on the Japanese scene.

Ortiz was put in the finals of that night's tournament, took Mezger down, and was kneeing him in the head when such a move was legal. Mezger was bleeding, and referee John McCarthy stopped the fight so the doctor could check on Mezger's cut. At the time, the rules were not to restart them in the same position.

When the inexperienced Ortiz, who had 31 seconds of cage time going into the fight, shot in for another takedown, Mezger caught him in a guillotine and Ortiz had to submit. Two years later, Ortiz, then in only his fifth pro fight, dominated Mezger and won via ref stoppage.

He then taunted Mezger with an inflammatory T-shirt that read "Gay Mezger is my b**ch," and followed by flipping off Mezger's coach, Ken Shamrock, one of UFC's first stars, who was then out of the sport after taking a lucrative contract with the World Wrestling Federation.

This led to one of UFC's all-time landmark rivalries.

Jones debuted as a 21-year-old late injury replacement, facing veteran IFL star Andre Gusmao on Aug. 9, 2008, in Minneapolis in an undercard fight. Jones had debuted in the sport less than four months earlier and had already won six times, all by stoppage.

Ortiz had his first title fight, which he lost to Frank Shamrock, at 24, just two years and four months after his debut. Jones had his first title fight, which he won from Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, just before his 24th birthday, and also less than three years after his debut.

Frank Shamrock left what appeared to be a dying promotion. The UFC was bleeding money, with no hope of getting television, and only on pay-per-view to satellite dish.

Ortiz then defeated Wanderlei Silva on April 14, 2000, in Tokyo, to win the vacant title. Ortiz was managed at the time by Dana White.

White, who was looking to start a boxing promotion with high school friend Lorenzo Fertitta at the time, while managing both Ortiz and Chuck Liddell. White, because of his association with Ortiz, the UFC's biggest star at the time, found out the company was on death's door. He told Fertitta, and this led to them purchasing the promotion.

But the early years were not successful, with many pay-per-views doing less than 35,000 buys. The only signs of life were Ortiz's fights with the likes of Ken Shamrock in 2002 (150,000 buys), Randy Couture in 2003 (75,000 buys) and Chuck Liddell in 2004 (105,000 buys).

There is a strong possibility that had Ortiz not been around to show there was potential, Fertitta would have thrown in the towel by 2002.


There is a strong possibility that had Ortiz not been around to at least show that there was potential, that Fertitta would have thrown in the towel by 2002.

By 2006, everything had changed. The company got on Spike TV in 2005 and financially turned things around. In 2006, Ortiz fought four times. He beat Forrest Griffin, He got two wins over Ken Shamrock, before losing to Liddell. The Griffin fight broke the company's pay-per-view record topping 400,000 buys. The Shamrock fight destroyed it doing, 775,000 buys. The Liddell fight is still one of the few in company history to crack the 1 million mark. According to White, Ortiz earned $5.6 million that year.

Ortiz and Liddell were training partners. Ortiz claimed they had a pact that they would never fight, which Liddell has always denied was the case. Ortiz's avoiding the first fight fractured whatever friendship the two had. It led to the creation of an interim title, when Ortiz took a movie role instead of signing to face Liddell in 2003. But Ortiz ended up 0-2, losing by stoppage both times, against his former training partner.

Just as Ortiz's fought an established star in Mezger in his second UFC fight, Jones' second UFC win came against Stephan Bonnar. While today, Jones vs. Bonnar would side like a mismatch, in early 2009, nobody had heard of Jones as he dominated Bonnar for two rounds before tiring in the third, in the match that put him on the map.

Jones' biggest fight had a similar story. As Jones started impressing people in his early UFC fights, he wound up leaving his home in upstate New York to train at Greg Jackson's camp in Albuquerque. That was the home of light heavyweight stars Rashad Evans and Keith Jardine. At the time, a pact was made that the three would never fight.
While Jones' popularity these days is a mixed bag, it was a scant two years ago when the Newark, N.J. crowd was euphoric from start-to-finish on the night Jones became champion. He ran down a mugger in the park in the afternoon. He gave Mauricio "Shogun" Rua the beating of his career. Jones then charmed everyone, until he made a remark acting as if he would consider fighting Evans.

Crowds soured on Jones leading up to that fight after that remark, and he wasn't nearly as popular in his win over his former training partner. His popularity fell even more when his turning down a replacement fight with Chael Sonnen led to UFC 151 being canceled.

Still, through all of Ortiz's career ups-and-downs, perhaps his most emotionally satisfying moment came near the end.

Long past his prime, in what most figured to be his last match, with his neck and back fused, he stunned the heavily-favored Ryan Bader with a punch. Ortiz put Bader out with the same guillotine that Guy Mezger finished Ortiz with, and Bader was finished in 1:56.

At that point, it had been nearly five years since Ortiz won a fight. The win got Ortiz three more fights, all losses, before he retired after losing last summer at the age of 37 after losing his third fight with Griffin.

As one of the key stars in UFC history, Ortiz is a deserved company Hall of Famer.

But Jones as a fighter, already is far more.

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