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Tito Ortiz, the UFC Hall of Fame, and How a Little Salesmanship Goes a Long Way

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

For a guy who hasn’t altered his hairstyle in 15 years, Tito Ortiz has been many different people over the course of his MMA career. He’s been a gifted self-promoter and a troublesome employee. He’s been a charismatic champion, a mediocre light heavyweight, and an undeniable draw. He spent a little time as a cautionary tale, then an even briefer spell as a lovable underdog. He was one of the first MMA fighters to become something akin to a celebrity, and he wielded that power for both the good of the sport and the benefit of his bank account, though not necessarily in that order.

This weekend Ortiz will add a new line to his resume when he becomes a UFC Hall of Famer at 37 years of age. If, as oddsmakers expect, he loses what is supposed to be the final fight of his career against Forrest Griffin at UFC 148, he’ll go in with a 16-11-1 career record that includes just one win in his last nine fights. Take away his three wins over Ken Shamrock, who was past his expiration date when their rivalry began and practically geriatric by the time it ended, and Ortiz’s career numbers start to look like something that wouldn’t even merit a return phone call from UFC matchmaker Joe Silva in the modern era of MMA.

But then, Ortiz isn’t a product of modern MMA. The fact that he’s hung around as long as he has and convinced the UFC to pay him as much as it has almost seems like a form of black magic. Maybe great salesmanship always seems that way. And, let’s be honest, Ortiz is being honored by the UFC more for his marketing and promoting skills than his pugilistic ones. Whether that’s right or wrong all depends on how you look at it.

Even with his early success against the Jerry Bohlanders and Yuki Kondos of the MMA world, I’m not sure you can call Ortiz a truly great fighter. Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture were both better light heavyweights from the same era. Wanderlei Silva has a better highlight reel. Jon Jones could retire tomorrow, and he’d have the more impressive body of work. Ortiz had his moment in the sun as the UFC light heavyweight champ, but even then he had to wait until after Frank Shamrock fled the company. Is that a hall of fame career? If we’re only talking about what happens inside the cage, then no. But that’s not why the UFC is shining the spotlight on him this weekend, and we all know it.

For instance, look at UFC president Dana White’s recent explanation on Sirius XM radio as to why Ortiz is a UFC Hall of Famer while Frank Shamrock, who beat him and left the company as champion, isn’t:

"Here’s the thing about the UFC Hall of Fame in all honesty, you know, the UFC Hall of Fame this is – these are guys that we have been inducting that have done a lot for the sport since we’ve (ZUFFA) have taken over, you know what I mean? Here’s a guy, you know, Frank Shamrock, Frank Shamrock hasn’t done anything for the new UFC. And when I say the new UFC I mean the regulated, since it’s been regulated, since it’s been back on pay-per-view, mainstream television, all the things that have been done over the last 12 years, the guys who have been inducted have helped us get to where we are. Frank Shamrock isn’t one of those guys."

In other words, it’s not just what you did in the UFC that counts, it’s what you did for Zuffa. Of course, that doesn’t explain why Mark Coleman -- who won exactly one UFC fight in the Zuffa era, and whose best years were spent in Japan’s Pride Fighting Championships organization -- is in the UFC’s hall. It also doesn’t explain Dan Severn’s presence, or Royce Gracie’s. But that’s the nice thing about running your own hall of fame. You don’t have to explain anything. You can add who you want and exclude who you want, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

It makes you wonder just what we’re supposed to make of Ortiz’s inclusion. For years he was a walking headache for White, and a constant antagonist at the negotiating table and in the media. The two of them were still at each other’s throats before Ortiz’s UFC 132 bout with Ryan Bader, and any truce they strike for the sake of shared interests seems temporary at best. If White can see past his tortured personal history with Ortiz and recognize his efforts to help the sport and, occasionally, the company, isn’t that a triumph of sorts? Then again, if the UFC Hall of Fame starts honoring fighters more for their help with ticket sales than their actual accomplishments in the cage, how long before it becomes a glorified employee of the month award?

It’s a tricky question for MMA and the UFC. The sport is still so young. It wasn’t so long ago that it seemed to be teetering on the brink of permanent irrelevance, so it makes sense to honor those who did their part to haul it into the spotlight. Ortiz was one of those guys. It’s arguable whether he brought attention to the UFC only as a byproduct of his ceaseless efforts to bring attention to himself, but it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t some sort of pioneer. He showed the younger generation of fighters the value of self-promotion. He also showed them how to stand up for themselves to get what they deserve, even when it enraged the bosses. He showed the UFC the value of a good rivalry, and gave Zuffa its first real taste of pay-per-view success.

Those are career accomplishments that seem worthy of some kind of appreciation, whether it’s a gold watch or one of those vaguely condescending ‘lifetime acheivement awards.’ Ortiz definitely left his mark on this sport, even if it was more as a marketing expert than a fighter. Maybe it’s fitting that he should get the nod from White and co. this weekend, as part of one last PR push before he’s out the door for good. Maybe we can forget about his shortcomings as an athlete for at least a little while and enjoy the ceremony for what it is: a gesture of appreciation from one salesman to another, offered for the mutual benefit of both.