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Tito Ortiz’s career in and out of the cage was among the most influential in MMA history

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Bellator 170 Open Workouts Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

On Jan. 21 at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., Tito Ortiz left the cage and walked off into the sunset with his oldest son. Bellator even projected an actual sunset on the video walls to signify the end of a career that was among the most important in the history of mixed martial arts.

While Ortiz's true heyday as a fighter came a long time ago, from 2000-03 when he was UFC light heavyweight champion and the organization's biggest star, his influence changed the sport in many ways. Most know Ortiz had a run as champion and would recognize the name for his long tenure in the sport.

But most don't realize just how big a part he played in other ways when it came to UFC's history, growth and its media acceptance.

Ortiz was, in his own way, an integral part of the original 2001 UFC purchase by casino moguls Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta. If you go with the idea that the three people most responsible for taking the sport to the level it reached were Lorenzo, Dana White and matchmaker Joe Silva, well, without Ortiz, none of this would have happened.

Ortiz was a 22-year-old college wrestler when he debuted with the UFC on May 30, 1997, on a show in Augusta, Ga. He had never fought in MMA previously. He was debuting as an amateur, to protect his college wrestling eligibility. It was the first match of the show, before the pay-per-view had started.

Ortiz's 31-second, ground-and-pound win over Wes Albritton was an alternate fight in the 199.9 pound weight class, the division at the time called “middleweight” in a sport that not only had no name, but generally wasn't even considered a sport. If there was any media coverage at the time, it was almost all negative, largely treating cage-fighting like a brutal freak show that should be banned.

Ortiz had won two state junior college championships at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, Calif. His coach at the time, Paul Herrera, had already competed at an early UFC event. Herrera and Ortiz trained with the popular early UFC star Tank Abbott, the original "Huntington Beach Bad Boy.” Ortiz also saw that Jerry Bohlander, whom he’d defeated in the 1994 California state high school wrestling tournament, had become a UFC star after winning a middleweight tournament.

The UFC 13 tournament was built around four men. Fighting out of Ken Shamrock’s Lion’s Den — the first major U.S. training camp — Guy Mezger was a star in the Pancrase organization in Japan. Christophe Leninger was a nationally ranked judoka. Enson Inoue was a star with the Shooto promotion in Japan. The fourth was the debuting Royce Alger, whom many believed to be the favorite. Alger was a fiercely competitive wrestler under Dan Gable at Iowa who’d won two NCAA titles, and had at one time a 78-match winning streak in Division I competition.

Mezger defeated Leninger in the opening round and Inoue quickly armbar’d Alger. But before Inoue got the submission hold, he caught a punch that fractured his orbital bone and was thereby unable to continue. Ortiz replaced Inoue to face Mezger in the finals. Put into context, it seemed Ortiz was in way over his head, having just one fight on his résumé, and going up against a 19-fight veteran who had fought many of the best in the world at the time.

Ortiz cradled Mezger and started dropping knees on his forehead, legal under the far more liberal rules of that era. The knees caused Mezger to bleed heavily. Referee John McCarthy stopped the action to have the cuts checked. Mezger was cleaned up and sent back out. Ortiz shot in, left his neck exposed, and was choked out with a guillotine in just over 2:00.

That easily could have been it for Ortiz in the UFC. There was no great clamor to bring him back, but Joe Silva — who worked as something of a consultant — was adamant that the match was unfair. He noted Mezger was in a bad position when the fight was halted. Silva insisted he probably wasn't going to get out of that position. But when the fight was stopped, it started back up from a standing position. In other words, it was Mezger's massive bleeding that ultimately gave him the escape. That incident eventually led to a rule change.

Silva kept pushing for the UFC to bring Ortiz back, and they did 19 months later, at UFC 18. He physically dominated Bohlander in his return bout, which earned him a spot as a regular.

His next fight was a rematch with Mezger at UFC 19, which Ortiz won via stoppage (TKO). Far more memorable was what happened after the fight. There had been bad blood. Bohlander and Mezger were training partners at the Lion's Den. Words had been exchanged in the buildup. After winning, Ortiz put on a T-shirt that read, "Gay Mezger is my b*tch." Ken Shamrock, at that point a pro-wrestling star with the WWF, was furious. He nearly climbed over the cage to get at Ortiz, and Ortiz walked toward him as if to say “bring it on,” only to have McCarthy pull him away.

The seeds for one of the most important rivalries in the UFC's history were planted that night.

The win led to what was the biggest fight of the "dark ages," a period where political backlash led to most cable companies dropping the UFC from their pay-per-view lineups. Frank Shamrock, the adopted younger brother of Ken, and a former training partner to Mezger and Bohlander, was the UFC's biggest star at the time as the undersized middleweight champion. His fight with Ortiz was marketed as the era's biggest grudge match. The much-smaller Shamrock, who weighed in at 192, won the fight via a come-from-behind fourth-round submission when Ortiz — who was somewhere in the vicinity of 217 to 222 pounds on fight night— completely ran out of gas while being pounded in the back of the head.

Shamrock retired for several years after the win. Ortiz rolled on. With his showing against Shamrock — he had won the first three rounds before losing in the fourth — Ortiz was put in with Wanderlei Silva to crown a new champion, and Ortiz was able to use his wrestling to win a decision.

The win made Ortiz the UFC's biggest star. At the time, Ortiz was managed by eventual UFC president Dana White. Because of Ortiz's position in the sport, he and White found out that the UFC's owners, Semaphore Entertainment Group, were about to throw in the towel, as the company hemorrhaged money following the bad press and PPV bans. They were in the process of selling to Florida hotel executive Dan Lambert, the same person who now runs American Top Team (ATT).

By now it’s a familiar story: White was able to convince his high-school friend, casino magnate Lorenzo Fertitta, to purchase the UFC for $2 million.

When Zuffa got the company, two key things happened to help facilitate Ortiz’s rise. First, Ortiz was struggling to make 199.9 pounds, so — mostly to accommodate him — the UFC changed the weight class to 205, renaming the division light heavyweight. Second, they asked Ortiz who should be the matchmaker. Ortiz suggested Joe Silva, who went on to hold the position for the next 16 years until retiring in December.

White, put in charge of UFC by the Fertittas, attempted to build the company around Ortiz, although the two ended up constantly butting heads over the years.

The UFC struggled. The Fertittas were able to get the shows back on pay-per-view, but the big numbers of the 1993-96 era seemed gone forever. At one point, after millions in losses, the Fertittas discussed the idea of selling. Most shows were doing around 30,000 buys on pay-per-view. But Ortiz against the right opponent — such as his 2002 fight with Ken Shamrock built around the incident after the bout with Mezger, and a 2004 fight with Chuck Liddell — both did more than 100,000 buys on pay-per-view, showing that there was potential.

Ortiz lost his championship in a 2003 fight with Randy Couture. In many ways, the career trajectory of Ortiz was similar to that of tennis stars John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Crowds for the most part hated all three when they were in their prime, feeling they were arrogant poor sports.

Then again, Ortiz tried too hard to be liked, yet could never steer the public in his favor. He dropped the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” and became "The People's Champion," a name popularized a few years earlier by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as a pro wrestler. But a “people's champion” usually refers to a super popular fighter. Ortiz tried to be that guy, but simply wasn't. He'd come out waving the American flag, and sometimes, the Mexican flag as well. While people would pay to see him fight, for the most part they cheered for his opponent.

Like McEnroe and Connors, as he got older and struggled against the inevitability of time catching up to him and taking his skills, aging in a young man's business, the fans started getting behind him, and hoped to see him against all odds become the old Tito Ortiz. And a few times it even happened.

After the UFC got on television in 2005, and the promotion exploded in popularity, Ortiz had one more big run.

The UFC started to get strong coming off the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, but it exploded in 2006 with Ortiz as the catalyst. Ortiz and Ken Shamrock coached the highly rated third season of TUF, designed to build up a fight.

Ortiz then set a company pay-per-view record drawing 400,000 buys in a fight with Forrest Griffin at UFC 59 — while not nominally the main event (that was Tim Sylvia’s knockout win over Andrei Arlovski to win the heavyweight title), Ortiz-Griffin, in the company’s first California card in Ortiz’s backyard of Anaheim, was the real draw. While Griffin lost the split decision, the fight made Griffin one of the most popular fighters in the organization. Ortiz destroyed that record in a fight with Ken Shamrock at UFC 61 (this one, likewise, headlined by Syvlia-Arlovski 3), built up as the biggest grudge match up to that time in UFC history, which did 775,000 buys.

The UFC's bank account grew, as the pay-per-view revenues allowed the UFC to surpass Pride FC as the biggest MMA organization in the world. It also led Zuffa into subsequently purchasing Pride the next year. The UFC accomplished these numbers with almost no media coverage at all.

The second Shamrock fight was a high-point money wise, but a low point as far as the show went. Ortiz took Shamrock down and landed a series of elbows. One elbow caused Shamrock to momentarily go limp. The fight was stopped at 1:18 of the first round, and it was the right call. However, fans were far less sophisticated about the sport’s nuances back then than they are now, and thought it was a terrible stoppage, particularly when Shamrock popped back up and started complaining about it. The reaction was such that there was fear that it could have killed the sport's growth.

White came up with the idea to do another Shamrock vs. Ortiz fight, but put it on Spike TV as a special. The idea was more a make good to the irate fans, allowing them to see it on basic cable.

Shamrock was 42 by that time and there was little doubt the fight would have the same result. The fight went slightly longer, but it was similar to the first. Ortiz was simply too big, too strong and too fast for the aging star of a prior generation.

The bout drew more insider criticism than any previous fight of the era. The claim was that after what had happened before, nobody wanted to see it again. It was a major lesson, which plays out today — that what the public wants to see is commonly at odds with what makes sense as far as sporting competition goes and what insiders want. The public’s demand tends to garner more leeway than the latter.

The fight on Spike beat the American League Championship Series game on FOX head-to-head in the male 18-34 demo, and did 6,524,000 total viewers, still the most viewers for any MMA fight in cable television history. The show beat several World Series games that year in the same demo.

Pay-per-view numbers were not a statistic that most in the sports world cared much about, as only boxing people understood the significance. The idea that this unknown sport was beating World Series games in a key demo was a different story.

When Ortiz challenged light heavyweight champion Liddell in 2006, the fight got a level of publicity multitudes beyond what any previous show had done. The show did a $5,397,300 gate and nearly 1 million buys, numbers the UFC wouldn't hit again for several years. Liddell won, establishing him as UFC's biggest star.

Ortiz fought six more years in UFC, but only won a single fight in that span, a huge upset over Ryan Bader at UFC 132. His reasoning turned into a broken record. He'd claim before the fight that the old Tito Ortiz was back and that finally — after four, five, six, and eventually 10 years — the injuries that had plagued him were healed. Then he'd lose, and afterwards claim his back, or his neck, were so messed up he could barely train. He was also notable for constantly being at odds with White. But through it all, his fights usually drew well and he remained one of the most recognizable fighters in the UFC until his 2012 retirement.

He came back with Bellator, and over his two-plus years, went 3-1, and had two of the company's four highest-rated shows in its history with his wins over Stephan Bonnar and Chael Sonnen.

To the end, if his opponent would verbally engage him, the public would watch.