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Over the years, Tito Ortiz blurred the line between the couch and the cage

Bellator 170 Weigh-ins

When it’s all said and done, we will look back at Tito Ortiz’s twilight years in professional fighting as therapy sessions for one party or the other. His fight with Chael Sonnen has long been an oversized wrench in his box of grudges, mostly because Sonnen beat him in a collegiate wrestling bout nearly 20 years ago. His fight with Liam McGeary was a chance for McGeary to overcome being star struck, and he accomplished that with an inverted triangle choke of the icon. In Ortiz’s last UFC fight, Forrest Griffin needed “The People’s Champ” to deal with his anxiety issues. He stormed out of the cage after the fight, returned, took the mic from Joe Rogan, and proceeded to interview Ortiz.

That was Griffin acting out, in a fight he actually won. Tito was his couch.

And who can forget the time Stephan Bonnar dragged a masked man into the cage for a confrontation with his longtime oppressor, Ortiz? That was Justin freaking McCully, a third-party victim in Ortiz’s “Emotion Series.” McCully peeled back not one but two masks, like Carl Jung peeling back layers of psyche. Tito called them “drug addicts” and had to be restrained.

No, the old Tito Ortiz — who, at 42, is heading into his final cage fight on Saturday night — has become a piñata of feelings, and there’s always somebody with a stick. This time it’s Sonnen, who snored impolitely through Tito’s recounting of a story he heard about an old lion that found himself being annoyed by all manner of wildlife in a jungle, only to get tired of it one day and remind them that he was a f*cking lion (or something).

Disrespecting the legend has become a national pastime.

(Wait, before I go on, one thing I’ll miss about Ortiz is that he never skimps on details. Did we need to know it was a sweltering jungle, or that jackals and hyenas were having a laugh? Or that the lion had a big mane? Or that the L4-Lf-s1 were fused, along with the C6-C7 vertebrae? No. Of course not. But details matter to Tito, and it’s been an honor listening to him deal those details all out of order over the years.)

For Sonnen, having Ortiz as a target is a walk in the park. There are a million ways to get under Ortiz’s skin, and Sonnen knows about 998,846 of them.

In some ways, Ortiz’s legacy will revolve around sensitivity, and towards the end there usually his own. It wasn’t always like that. He was the one prodding Ken Shamrock back in the day, the young punk who people loved to hate. Back then Shamrock was the old guy-turned-punch line, and Ortiz was right there with the jokes. Tito put Guy Mezger on the spit pretty good back in the late-1990s, too. And that time he showed up on The Best Damn Sports Show Ever with a cane for Randy Couture was memorable. He was in total control. The grave digging was just an extension of his overall prickdom, and even still that idea goes into what we might call “vintage Tito.”

But when he started losing a few fights the “bad boy” saw his skin thinning down a bit. Maybe it was during his battles with Chuck Liddell. Chuck, who it seemed at the time was invented to be Tito’s foil, really made the most of manipulating the hard feelings in play. He even appeared on the cover of UFC Magazine when the trilogy was being talked about wearing a T-shirt where he was peeing on the name ORTIZ. In other genres of sport, this would have seemed in poor taste.

In Tito Ortiz’s manifest world of fighting, this was just good fun.

(You know something else, I’ll miss hearing Ortiz say words. The lion story was good in the Andy Kaufman sense, but he’s also the guy that said “God put me on earth to be a tool,” and told McGeary he was going to “garang havoc…on your face,” and said of Sonnen, “All I hear is gas coming out of his ass, and it’s not his butt.” Tito could slaughter even the most basic sentiments!)

This swan song fight with Chael Sonnen at Bellator 170 is fitting for a guy that can rightly be called an icon in MMA. When Ortiz started, he was the young kid with the mouth. He became a champion, and let his smugness fly with the flags, disrespectful T-shirts and the flames on his shorts. He was an original heel, the guy you hated to respect (and sometimes just hated). Sonnen is the modern day heel. He’s added so much nuance to the gig that much of it flies right over Ortiz’s head.

But Tito, who made a name going after the Lion’s Den, is the old lion of his own Christopher Walker retelling, and not just in his own mind.

Since his 2006 beat down of Shamrock, Ortiz has won just three of his 12 fights. In nearly 11 years, he has fought just a dozen times. Scarcity and losing didn’t do away with him. He’s fighting one last time in 2017, in a main event, which is kind of remarkable. Hopefully, Sonnen doesn’t grab the microphone and take away his moment in the end. Remember when Griffin did that, Ortiz bemoaned the fact that he didn’t get to speak to Rogan one last time.

That night at UFC 148, the post-fight presser became a kind of therapy session for him to talk how important that moment would have been.

(That’s the other thing I’ll miss. The press rooms when all reporters were turned into doctors or shrinks, and sometimes both. Say what you want about him, but Tito made the fight game very specific and personal, and his legacy, in the end, is one of mixed feelings.)

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