He is a superstar. He is a has-been. He is a character. He is a caricature.
Even at 39, Tito Ortiz remains as substantial and complex a presence as there is on the mixed martial arts scene. His self-assurance amid a landscape flooded by failings can veer into absurdism, but as tiresomely as that act can play out, the man who fancies himself as "The People's Champion" -- despite having won only one fight in eight years -- is indefatigable.
When Ortiz (16-11-1) steps into the circular cage outside Memphis on Saturday night for Bellator 120 (10 p.m. ET), the promotion's first foray into pay-per-view, he will be fighting a man smaller than him by about the size of his own ego. Alexander Shlemenko (50-7) is Bellator's middleweight champion and will enter this light heavyweight tussle pumped up by a 13-fight win streak. Of course, those W's sit next to vanquished names like Brennan Ward, Doug Marshall and Brett Cooper. The 29-year-old Russian's resume doesn't have the star power that Ortiz's does.
The problem with Tito's starry recent resume is that it's mostly resulted in him seeing stars. Ever since Dec. 30, 2006, when Chuck Liddell squashed a five-win run by Ortiz with a third-round TKO, Tito has fought nine times and won only once. Now, all of those bouts did take place in the UFC, which is the major leagues to Bellator's Triple A ball, and six of those nine fights were against the behemoth promotion's former or future 205-pound champions. But after a while, if you've done nothing but lose (other than a streak-interrupting upset of Ryan Bader nearly three years ago) over an extended period, you're going to be labeled a loser.
And you're going to enter a fight with a much smaller man -- even one who has competed on a much smaller stage -- as a 4-1 underdog.
Maybe the betting parlors are overlooking Ortiz, but the Bellator promotional machine certainly isn't. The moment this weekend's PPV lost its marquee matchup, what was to be a third performance of the violent choreography that is Eddie Alvarez vs. Michael Chandler, Tito became a sales attraction. "Rampage" Jackson and "King Mo" Lawal were the ones pushed into the main event, and Chandler's replacement dance with Will Brooks got second billing. But pictured right there on the redesigned event poster were Shlemenko and Ortiz. Or should I refer to him, as the poster does, simply as "Tito"?
As is the case with so many sports icons, from Peyton to LeBron, one name will suffice.
Ortiz's star power might puzzle fans new to MMA. But if you're among the bloodthirsty hardcores who have followed the sport from the start, you understand. Tito has been competing at the highest level since May 30, 1997, when he traveled to Augusta, Ga., to take part in a light heavy tournament that shared the UFC 13 bill with a heavyweight tourney (won by Randy Couture) and a superfight between Tank Abbott and Vitor Belfort (whatever happened to those two?). Ortiz needed just 31 seconds to hurdle an unlucky obstacle named Wes Albritton, but in the final, later in the evening, he succumbed to a Guy Mezger guillotine choke.
Within three years, though, Ortiz was beating Wanderlei Silva for the UFC belt, which he would successfully defend five times before a trimmed-down Couture took it away.
Ortiz would attempt to regain the belt another three years down the road, at UFC 66 in December 2006, but Chuck Liddell would hear none of that, battering Tito for a third-round TKO.
And that started a downward slide that would make Bob Sapp proud.
Since the loss to "The Iceman," Ortiz has added defeats at the hands of Forrest Griffin (twice), Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Matt Hamill. His other loss: time. This has been reoccurring, the byproduct of innumerable injuries, most notably to his spine.
Ortiz has retired at least once, and both his latter years in the UFC and his departure from the promotion were rocky. The fight company's president, Dana White, is not shy about sharing his opinions, and he seems to derive special glee from telling you what he thinks of Ortiz. "Tito is a [expletive] idiot," White told a gathering of reporters several years ago. "He's one of the dumbest human beings I've ever met."
UFC acolytes have run with that. And to his discredit, Ortiz often has made it easy to do so, by saying things that make no sense. Just last year he said during an interview on SI Now, "I thought slavery was over a long time ago." Now, criticizing White's business practices is one thing, but if you've earned $4,075,000 from the company -- No. 2 all time in career earnings among UFC fighters -- you might want to ditch the slavery talk.
Still, despite his rough edges, despite his run of losses, despite his hazily rosy self-image, Tito Ortiz is still here. He's still drawing us to him like moths to a flame. Is this the weekend, though, when the flame finally is extinguished?