When Tito Ortiz was in his prime as the brash, tongue-wagging “Huntington Beach Bad Boy,” every win was punctuated by a routine he called the “Gravedigger.” In it, he would feign boring a hole in the ground, dropping in his opponent and re-packing the dirt over him. The victory dance, which he began in December 2000, was over-the-top and alpha male, and in the hyper-aggressive world of MMA, it helped turn Ortiz into one of the sport’s first box-office stars.
In recent years, the “Gravedigger” has been rarely seen. Since the start of 2007, Ortiz has been able to dust it off only a single time, after upsetting Ryan Bader at UFC 132 in one of 2011’s greatest moments. Since then, it’s been back to losing, as he’s dropped two straight.
This May will mark 15 years as a pro for Ortiz, but it’s likely the last milestone he’ll hit in his Hall of Fame career, as he’s said he will hang it up after the final fight on his UFC contract. That bout will come in July, when he faces Forrest Griffin in the final fight of a trilogy, the UFC confirmed on Tuesday.
The match is one that the 37-year-old Ortiz has wanted for a long time, since Griffin captured a UFC 106 encounter by split-decision. Their previous encounter also split the judges, but in Ortiz’s favor at UFC 59. Griffin, too, has welcomed the rubber match. Though he’s just 32 years old, Griffin has likewise said that his MMA days are numbered, though he likely has more time left than Ortiz.
Combat sports careers often die unwillingly, often before sparse crowds of hardcores looking to say a final goodbye to a fighter long past his prime. Win or lose, if it is the last time for Ortiz (16-10-1), it will at least come in Las Vegas before around 15,000 fans.
If he falls to defeat, Ortiz is almost certainly done. A loss will mean that one of MMA’s most successful early competitors will have gone 1-7-1 in his last nine bouts, a sobering dose of reality that is quite difficult to ignore, even if several of those losses came against once or future UFC champions including Griffin, Rashad Evans, Lyoto Machida and Chuck Liddell.
On the other hand, if he wins, he can point to splitting his last four fights, generating a reason to continue past his own due date. That contract would be no easy sell for the UFC. Company president Dana White has had a rocky relationship with Ortiz, though it has been a bit more harmonious in this most recent run. He’s also not a fan of fighters hanging on too long and taking unnecessary physical punishment while in their twilight.
If Ortiz chose to seek out employment elsewhere, his options would be limited. Though he certainly would carry drawing power from his UFC days, his recent inability to win may drive down his price, and he may not be willing to take a large pay cut in a smaller promotion.
That’s why it’s most likely that his July 7 date with Griffin will be hist last.
Despite Ortiz’s many disagreements with company brass, he’s always been a company man, and holds the record for most fights (26) in the UFC’s octagon. He’s only fought one time outside of the promotion, and that was in his third pro fight, which came at a time when UFC events were so infrequent most of its fighters would take matches outside of the promotion to stay active.
It wasn’t long after that when Ortiz created the “Gravedigger,” first seen in a UFC 29 win over Yuki Kondo in Japan, though most recall his more animated version against Evan Tanner three months later as the true origin of the dance.
Ortiz went on to sit atop the MMA world for many more years, until contemporaries like Randy Couture and Liddell caught up to him, and ultimately, newer, more explosive models past him by. But much to White’s credit, he found a way to incorporate Ortiz into today’s UFC.
When White announced Ortiz’s new deal with the UFC back in 2009, it was with an eye towards the end. The six-fight deal, White said, would ensure that Ortiz retired in the UFC. For now, it appears that both White and Ortiz are sticking to that pledge, an amicable ending to a contentious yet fruitful relationship.
UFC President Dana White (above) embarrassed after Gray Maynard beat Clay Guida by split decision to win a lightweight bout and the main event of the UFC card in Atlantic City.
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