Question his career, his achievements or his record, but have no doubt about the way he conducted himself. Because throughout this soon-to-be Hall of Fame career, Tito Ortiz played the fans and media like an orchestra director. Whether his behavior over time was calculated or spur-of-the-moment, Ortiz has always been one of the most polarizing fighters ever to step in an MMA cage.
For a time, he was its brashest. Full of vigor and fire, his youthful energy made the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” a perfect representative of the sport in its early days. Now, as a 36-year-old facing the twilight of his career, he has suddenly morphed into its elder statesman.
That change was quite apparent at last Saturday night's UFC 133 in Philadelphia, after Ortiz was dominated en route to a second-round TKO at the hands of his rival, Rashad Evans. While the camera at home cut away to replays of the finishing sequence, Ortiz got up off the canvas, walked straight over to Evans, embraced him and whispered a few words in his ear.
While such moments are not uncommon in MMA these days -- in all actuality, they are the norm -- it still seemed somewhat surprising if you know where he came from.
Afterward, I asked Ortiz about the moment they shared.
"I just pretty much went up to him and said good luck and told him to go win that title," Ortiz said. "Show why you're the No. 1 contender."
For a fighter who was once known as a graceless winner, it's been a complete 180-degree turn. In his early days, Ortiz was known for wearing celebratory T-shirts that often added insult to his injured opponents. While that worked in symmetry with MMA's counterculture roots, there were always pockets of fans who detested those types of disrespectful displays.
These days, it would be a turn of the tables for fighters who came after him to do the same thing, but instead, they appreciate his historical significance as one of MMA's early drawing cards.
Evans said as much after the fight, when he discussed their post-fight exchange.
"I just wanted to thank him for taking the fight," Evans said, "And to let him know that because of him, I am where I am as far as where I am and where the sport is. No matter what happens to Tito in his career, he’ll always be a legend and he's always going to be a Hall of Famer. Nobody can ever take away what he's done."
It would have been easy for Evans to take a different stance. Remember, the two have a history of animosity dating back to their first bout in July 2007, and Evans isn’t exactly the sport’s biggest fan favorite these days, though the reason for the fan reaction to him isn’t quite so black and white as it once was to Ortiz.
While in the past, Ortiz was the master of post-loss excuses (back injuries, neck injuries, and a “cracked skull” are all part of his laundry list of past reasons for defeat), this time around there was nothing offered except for congratulations to Evans.
The neck? It was fine. Back? All good. Taking a fight on short notice? No issue.
“I gave it my all,” he said. “This was the first time in a few fights I haven’t been injured. I didn’t have any problems at all. I felt strong and in shape.”
Ortiz fought with everything he had, he was simply outmatched. He didn’t fall before giving the fans a thrill, briefly locking Evans in a guillotine choke -- the same submission he used to defeat Ryan Bader at UFC 132. But Evans is too smart and too seasoned, and he was able to find an escape before he was in serious trouble.
In the end there was no one to scapegoat, and no one to blame. And Ortiz didn’t look to an invent a reason. He spoke all week about his newfound positive attitude, and when things were at their worse, he lived it.
Losing main event fighters don’t always show up to post-fight press conference, but Ortiz was there. He answered the questions, took the blame and offered congratulations and even encouragement to the man that vanquished him.
Remember the T-shirts I mentioned before? After UFC 133, he put one on that made no mention of Evans. It was about himself, and it said “The People’s Champ.” If it is indeed a new Tito, it’s one that’s a long time in coming. And in his role as the UFC’s elder statesman, it serves him fine.
“The ‘Bad boy’ image is gone,” he said. “I’m focusing on the positive things in my life. Everyone should be like that. If you dwell upon the negative stuff so much, you kind of get sucked into it. It’s time to live my life the right way.”
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