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With Final Fight Looming, Tito Ortiz Gets a Chance to Bask in the Glory

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LAS VEGAS -- You’ll have to forgive Tito Ortiz if he gets a little carried away sometimes. In his early days as the UFC’s light heavyweight champion, he weighed in on a bathroom scale and performed for meager crowds of a couple thousand on some nights. As he took to the stage at Thursday’s UFC 148 pre-fight press conference to address a packed room inside a gaudy Vegas nightclub, he had to be feeling like he'd lived to see a whole new world rather than simply a new era for MMA.

Maybe that's why Ortiz got a little swept up in the moment as he declared that the UFC had "taken over" professional boxing and the NFL, and was now aiming for basketball and soccer. And yes, maybe he also stretched his poetic license as far as it would go when discussing what he promises will be his final fight.

"I’ve always been about exposing this sport to its fullest potential, and it’s fullest potential is, we’re the greatest athletes alive," Ortiz said. "We’re the modern day gladiators. As you can see, all these fans, the news and press, they’re here for us, because we are the modern day gladiators. We step out and we perform. On Saturday night I’m going to win, I’ll win the crowd and that’s how I’ll win my freedom."

Okay, so it was a bit much, but who can blame him? He used to have to make his own clever t-shirts just to get noticed. Now he shows up to press conferences in a finely tailored three-piece suit as throngs of fans grab eagerly for the nearest mic so they can tell him how much he’s meant to the sport of mixed martial arts. Is it any wonder that, as he prepares to say goodbye to this life after fifteen long years, he gets a little sentimental?

After more than two months of training at his secluded gym in the mountains near Big Bear, Calif., Ortiz insisted he’d already paid the price to end his career on a high note in his rubber match with Forrest Griffin. Win or lose, he promised he’s "100 percent" done after this fight, and he sounded very much like a man who’s ready for a rest.

"It’s hard, man. People don’t understand how tough training is," Ortiz said, when asked what he’d miss least about his life as a professional fighter. "You do it for fifteen years, yeah, the first eight years is cool. Nine years is okay. Ten years, you’re like, okay, this has been a decade. Damn."

But Fifteen? The last five of which have seen very little payoff in the win column for all the work he’s put in inside the gym? You could see how it might be harder and harder to justify the pain and suffering, not to mention the time away from his family. Now he gets one last chance to bask in the glow of his former accomplishments before the book is closed on what the UFC has deemed a Hall of Fame-worthy career, and oh yes, he intends to do some basking.

When casino magnates Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta bought the UFC, he said, "they kind of put it on my shoulders." When they got tired of losing money on the project in those early days, Ortiz said, he told them to "just hold on to this thing." And now look.

Whether you agree with his version of MMA history or not, you have to admit that Ortiz helped carry the UFC into the promised land. That’s why it’s fitting that he should go out after a third fight with Griffin, whose fight with Stephan Bonnar on the finale of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter still stands as one of the single most important moments in making the UFC the pro fighting juggernaut it is today.

And yet, like Ortiz, Griffin’s career trajectory has flattened out in recent years. Ortiz might be retiring from MMA whether he wins or loses, but Griffin has remarked that he would "retire from life" if he lost a second fight to Ortiz -- a line that prompted a steely grimace from Ortiz when it was brought up on Thursday.

"That retirement [talk], that’s been going around," Griffin said. "Apparently when you joke about suicide, people think you might quit your job."

But no, he’s not ready to go yet, Griffin said. Ortiz might hate the training, but he doesn’t. There are even times when it’s his only solace.

"After I got beat up by Silva, I was pretty depressed," Griffin said. "This weird thing happened. Every day, I just got in my car and went to the gym. And no matter what I’m doing in life, that just seems to happen."

It’s just that, as was the case in his last fight against "Shogun" Rua last August, sometimes great training camps lead to nights where, as Griffin put it, he fights "like s--t."

And what’s to become of him if he has another one of those nights against Ortiz? Hard to say. But Ortiz’s legacy, whatever you make of it, is more or less set.

Sure, he’d like to go out on a win, because who wouldn't? He's had so few of them lately, it would be nice to get that feeling one more time. But even if he falls short, he’ll likely be remembered more for being one of the UFC’s early heroes than for ending his career on a losing skid. If the adoration he received from fans at Thursday’s presser is any indication, he’s not hurting for good PR. He's sold himself well over the years, and charisma is often the last thing to go for an aging sports icon.

People will remember Ortiz for what he did for the sport and the UFC brand, whether he has one more win over Griffin in him or not. It’s just a question of if he can slide into retirement looking like a fighter who left because he wanted to, rather than because he had to.