It was a full 16 years ago when Tito Ortiz first competed for a championship. He was 24 years old and challenging for the UFC light heavyweight belt in the marquee fight of a card that also featuring a rising star named Chuck Liddell and a promotional debutante named Matt Hughes.
Both of those former champs are long retired, but Ortiz is still going. And on Saturday night he once again went for a title.
Just as with that long-ago title shot at UFC 22, though, Ortiz was unsuccessful in his belt bid. Back in the day, he bounced right back and captured gold in his next fight, then reigned for seven title defenses over 3½ years. But this time, after failing to wrest the Bellator belt from Liam McGeary, there might not be a next time.
Ortiz is 40 years old now. And while he had had a bit of a resurgence in winning his first two fights since joining the second-fiddle fight promotion last year, the memory of what came before has not dissipated. No, not the old title reign but a more recent UFC run, from the end of 2006 until midsummer 2012, during which he won just one of nine bouts.
He looked finished for years, then he didn’t, and now he once again does. Or at least he sounds like he is.
Ortiz actually did what he had to do to win the fight. Facing the 6'6'' champ and his 747 wingspan, the challenger came out like the veteran he is, keeping his distance until he saw an opening to surge for a takedown just as the bout was a minute old. From there, he patiently worked to get in position to employ the ground-and-pound attack he long ago filed with the US Patent Office. He didn’t land anything damaging, but kept McGeary smothered for most of the round.
In the final minute, however, the champ wrapped his long legs around Ortiz in an armbar attempt, and when that didn’t pan out, immediately switched to an inverted triangle. With 19 seconds to go, Ortiz tapped out.
It was over. For good?
“I worked really hard for this camp,” Ortiz said afterward in an interview in the cage, his voice cracking just a bit, as though he might succumb to emotions, as though he might say something definitive. “I gave my heart and soul for 18½ years in this cage, and in the other cage, in the sport of MMA. I was a legend, or I am a legend, whatever. People say I’m a legend. Whatever.”
At that point, Ortiz’s words became scattered, as they often do when he’s on the microphone. The message he was trying to convey was that on this night he felt the best he had in nearly a decade, and that it wasn’t good enough. He never used the word, but it sounded like a retirement speech.
Of course, no one ever knows when enough is enough, no one in combat sports in particular, or at least precious few. So this likely was not be the last time we will see Tito Ortiz (18-12-1). But there will be no return trip to the top of the mountain, not even the Bellator foothill.
No, now that McGeary (11-0) has a first title defense under his belt, there’s a new entry on his dance card, and it’s a different former UFC fighter. Earlier in the evening, the promotion conducted a four-man, one-night tournament to determine the next challenger for the light heavyweight championship, and the winner was Phil Davis, making his Bellator debut after leaving the UFC when his contract ran out a few months ago. “Mr. Wonderful” submitted former Bellator belt-holder Emmanuel Newton, then knocked out Francis Carmont (who was filling in for Mo Lawal, who was injured during his firat-round win).
In other words, McGeary is moving on. Belltor is moving on. Tito Ortiz has nowhere to go but home. At his age, he’s a physical marvel. He still has the drive. But for what?
On a night of pomp-and-circumstance at the SAP Center in San Jose, Calif., Bellator teamed with the Glory kickboxing promotion to stage an odd event in which both a cage and a ring were situated in the arena, and the two combat sports shared the stage. But the biggest moment of the night came not during a fight but between them, when Fedor Emelianenko, acknowledged by many as the greatest heavyweight MMA fighter ever, was trotted out to announce his return to the game following a retirement of three years.
Will Ortiz find inspiration in that? Or will he recognize the wisdom of stepping away when his time has come?