Tito's career started when the UFC wasn't sanctioned, when the shows were practically underground. His career mostly resembles the career of a pro wrestling superstar. Early on, he was clearly a "heel", bursting onto the scene at UFC 13 (or: hey, that was a long time ago!). At the time, one of most dominant camps was Ken Shamrock's Lions Den (again: that was a long time ago). Tito lost to Guy Mezger, in a controversial match. Afterwards, he beat another of the Den's members, in Jerry Bohlander. By now, the trash talking by both parts was already in full stride. A rematch with Mezger was to follow.
At UFC 19 Tito beat Mezger, by TKO. Not fully happy with the win, Tito decided to let his antics come out, flipping the entire Lion's Den. A verbal confrontation with Ken Shamrock then took place. Tito's bad boy persona had arrived, fueled by some of his antics, like the T-shirts with text about his opponents, or simulating the burial of his foes after a fight.
Despite the antics and his perceived image, a really good fighter was in development. Tito has always been a cardio machine (training at high altitude, at Big Bear), surrounded himself with good training partners, decent (but not excellent) striking, good takedowns, and terrific ground 'n pound (he's actually one of the few guys that can effectively pound from inside his opponent's guard).
Tito quickly became one of the most recognizable fighters in the UFC, in those dark ages, and coming out of them. He lost to Frank Shamrock at UFC 22. He would not lose again for a while. At UFC 25 he defeated Wanderlei Silva to capture the UFC's LHW title (Silva, one of the most dominant fighters ever, actually has a pretty pathetic UFC record, but that's subject to another story). Between April of 2000 and September of 2003, Tito defended his belt, always winning. He ruled the division with an iron fist.
When Ken came back, the UFC arguably had its biggest fight up to that point, at UFC 40. Finally, Tito versus Ken. In my opinion, it's also the match that defines the turnaround for the UFC, its first foray into mainstream territory. As anticipated as it was, Tito delivered a one-sided beating. Ortiz had conquered the Lion's Den; the feud would go on and he would beat a lackluster Ken Shamrock two more times.
Another sign of Tito's importance at the time: for its Pride FC 13 card, DSE wanted a champion of the UFC to come to Japan to deliver flowers, just before the main even match between Wanderlei Silva and Kazushi Sakubara (a HUGE match, at the time). They chose Tito, a testament to his importance at the time. Tito gave flowers to Silva, who decided not to hold them; Tito then had to give them to a ring girl, and kissed her; coming to the other corner, he handed the flowers to Sakuraba, who promptly accepted them; Tito's reaction? He kissed Sakuraba (after that, Sakuraba would receive the beating of a lifetime; but, again, that's another story).
Tito's reign came crashing down at UFC 44, losing the belt to Randy Couture (and also getting spanked in the butt, in the process... literally). He also lost to Chuck Lidell, another long-time nemesis of him. He would come back, beating the likes of Vitor Belfort and Forrest Griffin, just to lose to the Iceman again.
I always had a terrible image of Tito. I was rooting for Couture at UFC 44, and for the Iceman at UFC 47. Like I said, if this was pro wrestling, Tito Ortiz would be one of the biggest heels of the sport, with his antics and feuds. But my perceptions about this guy have changed, mainly because of two things:
- First of all, he likes to pour gasoline onto the fire, he likes to hype his fights, pump the fans. While he likes to trash talk and badmouth his opponents, his overall attitude and persona have undeniably helped the sport grow, helped it go mainstream in the US. His contribution isn't questionable;
- Secondly, did you watch the Ultimate Fighter season 3? We all got to see a close-up of Tito's work ethic, team spirit and my image of him certainly changed. Sure, he's still the bad boy, but let's just begin looking at him as "Bad Boy Light". Besides, comparing his coaching to Shamrock's "effort" on the show? Tito, all the way.
Tito is 33, has had multiple knee problems, won't be fighting for any big titles soon. Still, MMAweekly ranks him as the #10 Light Heavyweight in the world. His name and fighting skill are going to help another organization sell tickets and achieve ratings. I hope he doesn't go into pro wrestling, or something of the sort. EliteXC would, no doubt, love to have him onboard; so would other organizations such as the IFL, or even Cage Rage. The new Dream organization in Japan, which promises to be the 2nd coming of Pride FC, would need someone like him, too (they have many lightweights and welterweights, but they're severely lacking bigger fighters). He's 33, I just hope he sticks around in MMA for a few more years. With antics or without them.