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After Another Loss, Sun Begins to Set on Career of Legend Tito Ortiz

Tito OrtizThe legend deserved the benefit of the doubt. He deserved the chance to go into the cage against another top fighter, to measure himself up, to see where he stands in the modern MMA world.

The legend deserved the opportunity to prove that he was back, to illustrate that he was healthy, to showcase a dynamic and revitalized body.

But after last night's loss to Forrest Griffin, now we know that the legend of Tito Ortiz is almost all that we have left.

Please do not take this to discount everything Ortiz has done in the universe of MMA and in the world of the UFC. Ortiz (15-7) is one of the three most important fighters in the sport's early history, carrying it through the dark ages, becoming its first crossover superstar, generating monster buyrates and ratings.

In many ways, people like me, who can now write about MMA for a living, owe a debt of gratitude to Ortiz. But if the truth must be written, it has become clear that Ortiz's road back to any belt of any significance is long and rocky and likely impassable. The obstacles before him are too young, too powerful, too skilled, and just too many.

He told us before this fight that his back was healed up, that he was 100 percent and that we'd see a new, improved fighter. Ortiz did not fight poorly; he just fought like an older version of the old Tito. In this day and age, that's just not good enough, and there's no indication it will change.

And like the old Ortiz, after he lost by split decision, instead of congratulating Forrest, he mentioned the injuries. A bulging disc and a cracked skull, he claimed, hampered his training and performance.

It's not that those injuries are irrelevant; it's just that no one wants to hear any excuses.

First of all, he didn't need them. He fought hard, and that should have been enough. MMA fans are forgiving of warriors who go out on their shield.

Secondly, he spent the last several months telling us he felt like new. The excuses -- or health issues, as he'd likely call them -- will do nothing but anger the fans. Ortiz should know this by now. It's one thing to be a rookie and make that mistake, but any veteran knows that once you take the fight, all of your problems become background noise; the match is the symphony by which we hear you.

We heard about his repaired back, and how fluid he was looking in his striking, and you couldn't help but think that if both things were true, that maybe he could find his way back into the title mix. But except for a brief few second-round moments in Griffin's guard, raining down elbows in a rerun of his earlier days, Ortiz did not have many moments of success. Griffin (17-6) was faster with his punches, crisper with his strikes, and even had more power. Even when his strikes were getting blocked, he was by far the busier fighter. By the third round, it was hardly competitive, with Griffin teeing off on Ortiz, who was clearly exhausted, perhaps the cumulative effect of ring rust, injuries and age.

Think about this: In less than 40 days, it will be 2010. Ortiz has not won a match since 2006. That is a lot of history, over 1,100 days since Ortiz's hand was raised in victory. Since then, he's lost three times, had a draw, been frozen out of the UFC, had back surgery, had twins with his girlfriend Jenna Jameson, flirted with other organizations, rehabbed and returned.

That's a lot of life lived between wins, and a lot of age to overcome. He turns 35 in two months, and now admits he still has a bad back. In a division with sturdy, well-rounded veterans like Lyoto Machida, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Rashad Evans, surging youngsters like Jon Jones, Thiago Silva and Ryan Bader, the ageless legend Randy Couture and even an occasional appearance from Anderson Silva, this is not a weight class with any gimmes. And it is not a weight class with an easy roads towards the top.

As much as Ortiz loves to fight, he can't will himself to be a major threat in the division anymore. He's been so wrestling dependent that his future success hinges on getting his back healthy, and it hasn't been healthy in years. That makes it difficult to envision a scenario in which a 35-year-old coming off major surgery can find a way to beat any younger, stronger fighters.

All that said, Ortiz put forth a spirited effort against the always game Griffin. One ringside judge had him winning, though most observers felt Griffin earned the nod. Multi-millionaires don't have to put themselves through the kind of physical torture he went through just to walk into a cage and possibly suffer more harm. But he is, after all, a legend for a reason, and that should always be remembered. Ortiz raining down ground and pound will always be one of the indelible images of the early days.

Once upon a time, he was feared and furious. Now, he is just one of the many. Perhaps the tradeoff is this: Ortiz fans will probably no longer expect a win as much as they expect a show. And in that, the legend has always delivered.

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