In fighting, you don’t necessarily get just one chance to make a good last impression. You can take as many as you need, though it’s seldom advised to try and outlast your own vitality. Chuck Liddell had to have the truth pounded into him between 2008 and 2010 with three straight knockout losses, the second two (against Mauricio Rua and Rich Franklin) which were booked as if to prove the reports of his demise premature. He didn’t get a good last impression. Neither did Franklin, for that matter, who lost to Cung Le in violent fashion in 2012. And in fact, neither did Le, who was left wheezing blood in his final fight by Michael Bisping in 2014.
Somewhere at the end of a career, storied or not, competition at the highest level in fighting slips into a public form of battery. Witness what happened to B.J. Penn just a week ago. He didn’t belong in the cage with 24-year-old Yair Rodriguez, even if from a promotional standpoint wool was invented to pull over people’s eyes. The company line was that Penn wanted to return to glory.
Penn’s quest was proven delusional. And it was sad.
Tito Ortiz didn’t seem like a candidate who would ever go out on his own terms, but he was just stubborn enough to make sure he did. He got his fairytale ending on Saturday night against Chael Sonnen at Bellator 170, just two days before his 42nd birthday. If you followed the breadcrumbs all the way to The Forum, he was motivated to avenge a traumatic loss against Sonnen from back when they were competing as collegiate wrestlers. That bit of storyline gave the bout enough additional spice to make it appetizing. Grudges go a long way in the fight game.
Yet heading in, Ortiz was the butt of many jokes, from Sonnen on down to the fans and media. It didn’t feel as if he was clinging to a career like some of the aforementioned, it just felt like Bellator was milking every last ounce of vitality from his once mighty name. At least at first it did. Later it turned into the sport within the sport, the laughs at Tito’s expense. The madder Tito Ortiz got, the more entertaining the festivities became. We’ve known this for years: Mad Tito Ortiz is the Best Tito Ortiz. And Sonnen was going to make sure Tito stayed sentence-bumbling mad the whole way through.
If you zoom in on his final fight, you’ll see the warts. Sonnen was coming back from a very long suspension for PED use and looked like Chael’s flabbier uncle come fight night. Sonnen smartly pointed towards ring rust in the aftermath and, with so much invested in him, made sure to point out that his return is a process, that it was a “marathon, not a sprint.” Sonnen took a hit, but he’ll fight on. He’s not clinging to a legacy, so much as riling up the dormant legends. He can do that for a couple more years at least, because Bellator has a few. If Sonnen has a legacy at all, it’s mischief.
Nor was it a good look that Ortiz held onto that choke for an excruciating long time before relenting. He didn’t need to turn into Rousimar Palhares at the end, even if there was “ill will” involved. Right at the cusp of a perfect outro, Ortiz forgot his sportsmanship. That kind of sucked. He was so close.
And then again, some saw warts where there were none. The truthers were screaming “fake!” within seconds of the tap. Ortiz wasn’t just going to ride off into the sunset without some contention that it was all a hoax, a big fix, because…I’m not sure why, honestly, because it would have been far greater for Bellator to see Sonnen win that fight. Bellator may have served up Ortiz a softball at the end, an out of shape Sonnen, but they are not legacy philanthropists.
Zoom back out and Ortiz got the last laugh by forcing Sonnen to tap.
He said it was like a dream come true, to go out like that. Whatever it is, it’s certainly rare. Ortiz hung around a long time, and could have met similar fates that Liddell did, and Franklin, and Randy Couture, who had his head kicked through the rafters against Lyoto Machida. He had a lot of injuries to overcome, as he’d happily tell any reporter that asked. He was one of the great original heels in the sport, who inspired a good many to become mixed martial artists (people like Phil Baroni), and he had that light heavyweight title for three years. He was the kid that carried the flag out of the “Dark Ages” of Tank Abbott, and advanced the thing into a firmer place of legitimacy. He’s already a UFC Hall of Famer, and, even if there were a real MMA Hall of Fame, he’d be headed for it.
He scored a victory in his last fight, and had his son lay down his gloves in the cage. The last impression he’ll have of competing in MMA is a good one. His stubbornness paid off. He settled one last grudge. It was all good for Tito Ortiz.
And it was at least a little refreshing to hear a rock & roll track being played over the ending credits, rather than common dirge music.