It’s been a while since Tito Ortiz was an elite fighter, yet he still has all the pieces we expect to see from someone in a starring role. He’s willing to say outrageous, sometimes absurd things. He can still box and grapple. He appears to be physically fit. He isn’t just straight out of central casting; he pretty much created the MMA fighter stereotype that he continues to inhabit.
All of those traits are still there, yet many of the sharpened edges have been dulled by time.
Still, he finds a way to remain in the headlines and to test the continued longevity of his drawing power.
Somehow, after 22 years, Ortiz is still landing main event roles. It’s mostly because he has always known his way around creating a feud, but at 44 years old, his last few times out have tested the law of diminishing returns. The first two of those bouts at least featured past MMA stars in Chuck Liddell and Chael Sonnen to help carry the load, but Saturday’s Combate Americas pay-per-view debut brought the challenge of trying to lure fans to plunk down cash to watch him face a man—Alberto “Del Rio” Rodriguez—best known as a professional wrestler, and who had not fought a mixed martial arts bout in nearly a decade.
From the beginning, this match was always going to appeal most to fans who prefer sideshows as the main attraction. And from the beginning, it was clear that Combate Americas was not quite ready for the bright lights of pay-per-view. There were several mild yet head-scratching mistakes. In the event opening graphic, Ortiz was listed as 5-foot-8, while he is actually 6-foot-2. Throughout the show, the broadcasters were insistent on telling us the event took place in McAllen, Texas, even though the host Payne Arena is most definitely situated in nearby Hidalgo. When the action began, the first fight featured one fighter who’d been inactive for a year (Gaston Reyno) vs. another who was coming off seven straight losses (Rey Trujillo). The second bout featured two women (Dulce Garcia and Anali Lopez Fernandez) with one combined professional fight between them. There were several Spanish-language interviews that were not translated for English-speaking fans.
These are things you can easily overlook when you’re watching for free, but when you’re paying for it, well, the whole thing comes off a bit uncooked.
Then again, most everyone forks out money for a fight show with expectations for the main event, and it’s hard to believe that anyone would have shelled out their cash without expecting exactly what they got.
Perhaps that’s what led Combate CEO Campbell McLaren to tweet his guarantee about 40 minutes before the event, “Order the Tito vs. Alberto PPV and if [you] don’t think it’s amazing, I’ll give you your money back. Just call me.”
Most of us who paid will probably let McLaren keep our money, if only because we must acknowledge our own role in validating the circus. He has never been shy in exploiting easy marketing angles, and well, this “pro wrestler vs. MMA fighter” one has been around the block a decade or two. Del Rio was fighting from a lopsided experience deficit and Tito’s been in professional fighting for 22 years. We knew the schtick and the result before either happened.
Yes, there were roughly 100 luchadores accompanying Del Rio to the cage. There was Ortiz making the walk to Hulk Hogan’s former wrestling theme song “Real American,” and wearing a “Trump 2020” patch on his shorts. And then there was the silly and absurd and one-sided bout.
No official stats are available for the contest, but by my count, Del Rio landed exactly zero significant strikes during a match that lasted just 3:10. To his credit, Del Rio managed to return to his feet from a side mount and went on to survive longer than Chael Sonnen did against Ortiz when they faced off in 2017—he lasted only 2:03. But that’s cold comfort. It was easy work for Ortiz, as it was expected to be given their career arcs.
Is this actually a building block kind of night that will interest fans in returning to watch Combate Americas again? Probably not. In fact, many fans who prefer their sports without overt political messages may have been turned off. Combate gave the event the tagline “What side are you on?,” an obvious play on Ortiz’s Trump loyalties and the event’s location on a border town. It was a perplexing move given Combate’s origin story as an embrace of the Latin American market, yet somehow Ortiz came off as a beloved star, at least in the arena. (And to be fair, the genuinely thrilled reaction of Ortiz’s twin nine-year-old sons to him winning Del Rio’s WWE title belt in a side bet was a genuinely sweet moment.) For one night and for one audience, it somehow at least sort of worked.
If that was the case, it was mostly because the bar was a low one to clear—it never came off the floor. Pay-per-view is a notoriously difficult business, and Combate Americas took its first shot. Whether there will be another, I don’t know. But when you build your foundation on a 44-year-old and a culture war, there is no clear next step except restarting from scratch.