The time of Tito Ortiz is drawing to an end.
For a fan of the sport like myself, it is honestly hard to believe. I remember when he started making waves, many years ago. He was young, mean and totally disrespectful to his opponents, treating them all with equal disdain.
And he attracted a rabid fan base because of this. They loved him and lived vicariously through him.
When he finally claimed what was then the UFC middleweight title, the legions of Tito-maniacs crawled out of the woodwork, crowing loud and proud.
They had their champion, and nothing would ever be the same.
His career since those early days has had ups and downs, as any career in the combative sports will. He has been seen as both a fighter who could not be beaten and as a fighter who will be beaten all the time.
In the early days, when he was winning far more than he was losing, he did not seem to care one bit about his detractors. He wore his inflammatory t-shirts after each victory, accompanied with his grave-digger finale and too damn bad if you didn't like it.
Like he said live at UFC 31, after his victory over Evan Tanner: "No one is fading me."
But then things changed.
He lost his title to Randy Couture, a man he and others figured would fold under the heat. Randy was an “old man” and, as we now know, Tito likes to fight legendary fighters who are long in the tooth. He made a name off Ken Shamrock, goading the Hall of Fame fighter into the cage with him on three separate occasions and they never should have fought at all, truth be told.
Randy Couture was not the same kind of man as Ken Shamrock.
Couture was in good shape and his body had not experienced the wear and tear that Shamrock’s had.
He was also an excellent wrestler who had no fear of being punched or kicked, thanks in no small part to his five-round war with Pedro Rizzo in the heavyweight division.
But you couldn’t tell that to Tito before that night. Ortiz had his fans (of which he is perhaps the biggest one) behind him. To them, the idea that he would lose to an old man was silly.
But then he lost. Scratch that; he didn’t just lose, he got embarrassed.
Couture was the new champion, and the era of “Tito the Unbeatable” was suddenly over.
These things happen in the fight game. Fighters take turns playing the roles of both the hammer and the nail. It’s the life they choose, riding the highs of victory one moment and enduring the lows of defeat the next.
I personally don’t think Tito had any problems with the losses, because when you look back at his career, he’s lost to some of the very best in the division. There is no shame in that, for sure.
The pathos of Ortiz’s story lies in the fact that he doesn’t seem to understand why so many people love to see him lose.
Sometimes a fighter and his persona are two totally different things. A fighter, in order to get noticed, decides to play the role of “black hat,” which attracts viewers who want to see him lose.
Ali did this, but with such a sense of humor and style that we all knew it was an act. Aside from Joe Frazier, his opponents knew it as well.
Ortiz never seemed to get this and, if he did, he didn’t make a clear enough distinction with the fans. I am not calling him slow or stupid, not at all. The fact remains that he still seems sadly shocked when he is the recipient of the boos and harsh talk.
He shouldn’t be surprised at all.
Recently, Ortiz decided to cast aside his old bad boy moniker in exchange for something new.
"The People’s Champion: Tito Ortiz."
For all of his attempts at personal growth, this move not only smacks of desperation, but arrogance as well. If a fighter has a nickname like that, he better not only be beloved, but also a man who stands for something far greater than mocking defeated opponents.
His next and final opponent, Forrest Griffin, could claim to be “The People’s Champion” and would have a much greater chance of it being true than Ortiz could ever dream of.
Once again, no one should be surprised.
The sadness of it all is found in the fact that Tito honestly seems mystified as to why he has any detractors at all.
Tito chose to ride the black horse early on in his career and it was a dandy animal, a war horse that loved to charge fast and heavy. But he ran that horse into the ground long ago, now he’s walking it to the finish line.
There is no sense in acting like he didn’t enjoy his time trampling his opponents under those hooves, because we all know he loved it and his fans loved it, too.
But fans in this sport are fickle and he has much less of them than he did when he was champion. When he began to lose, people cheered for anyone who seemed anti-Ortiz, paying and praying they would see Tito be humbled yet again.
Perhaps, after his final fight is done, he should simply tip his black hat to the crowd and walk away, knowing he made the kind of money he hoped for when he stepped away the first time after UFC 40.
If not, then he can take comfort in the fact that while, in the end, he may have been disliked more than he was loved, he was indeed a polarizing figure and, for many, being hated is better than being forgotten.