He had two strikes against him. Two outs, bottom of the ninth. Down five runs, bases empty. Broken bat on his -- no, even better, Wiffle Ball bat on his shoulder. Closer of the Year on the mound. Fans filing toward the exits. Fat lady's singing, voice all warmed up.
It was all over for Tito Ortiz. He hadn't won a fight since 2006, which made it somewhat remarkable that he was still fighting in the UFC. But this was it for him, the end of the road. Company president Dana White had said it himself, to Tito and anyone else who cared to know: Another loss for Ortiz, and ballgame's over.
And another loss was all but guaranteed, wasn't it? The UFC had put Ortiz in with Ryan Bader, who'd beat down everyone put in front of him until, in his last fight, he'd run into the indomitable Jon Jones. So you might say Bader had beaten everyone he'd faced who wasn't superhuman. Laying waste to Tito Ortiz would be his first step on the way to securing a rematch with "Bones," who'd gone on to claim the light heavyweight title.
Of course, you know the end of the story. Or should I say continuation of the story? Ortiz dropped Bader with a right hand about a minute into the fight, then submitted him with a guillotine choke. Tito would live to fight another day, an outcome that no one other than career contrarians had predicted.
No one other than Ortiz himself.
During a recent media conference call to hype UFC 133, Saturday night's fight card in Philadelphia (9 p.m. ET, PPV) that features Ortiz against Rashad Evans in the main event, I asked Tito what it felt like to no longer be weighed down by the pressure of having one foot out the door and fighting a do-or-die bout.
"I have to correct you," he said as I still was wrapping up the question. "There was no pressure on me."
"But you had to win or ..."
"There was no pressure on me. It was all on Bader, who was supposed to win."
And then Ortiz launched into a monologue right out of the positive thinking textbook, explaining that losing that fight had never crossed his mind, that he was prepared for a positive outcome, that winning was the only possibility, blah blah blah. It sounded like someone trying to sell a fight, but the fight was over and no longer needed selling, so rather than a marketing pitch it sounded like self-belief. Some might call it delusional self-belief. But is it delusional if you actually make it happen?
We'll learn a little more about the power of self-belief this weekend. Ortiz is a heavy underdog to Evans, with whom he fought to a draw in 2007. But Rashad (15-1-1) has won five of six bouts since then, beating Forrest Griffin for the UFC light heavyweight belt and also knocking out Chuck Liddell. Ortiz (16-8-1), meanwhile, lost three straight before shocking Bader, his first win since 2006.
But dwelling on the negative is not part of the 36-year-old Tito's plan. "Look at Liddell. Look at [Randy] Couture," he said during the conference call. "They were champs at 36. Why not me?"
35: Days since he last fought. Just days after he'd beaten Bader, Ortiz got a call from the UFC asking if he'd fill in for an injured Phil Davis
5: Successful defenses of the light heavyweight title, a UFC record. He beat Wanderlei Silva for the vacant title in April 2000 and didn't lose it until September 2003, when Couture beat him. Three-plus years with the belt? An eternity.
2: Rounds won by Ortiz, according to the judges, in his first bout with Evans. The three-round bout was scored a draw because the referee deducted a point from Tito for repeatedly grabbing the fence during Rashad's takedown attempts.
434: Days since Evans last fought. Since beating "Rampage" Jackson in May 2010, Rashad has trained for a bout with then-champ "Shogun" Rua, then waited patiently while Rua healed from injury, then injured himself, scuttling a challenge for the belt.
0: Successful title defenses. (He beat Griffin for the belt, then lost to Lyoto Machida in his first defense.)
25: Percentage of success on takedown attempts (2 of 8) in first Ortiz fight, according to CompuStrike stats. Tito grabbing the cage didn't help the ex-collegiate wrestler.
What we should expect: Who knows? Ortiz entered the Octagon for the Bader fight with his energy boiling over, yet focused, laserlike. Can he bring that again this time? He'd better. And what about Evans? Will a 14-month absence from the cage make him rusty or rejuvenated? There are too many X factors at play here for this to be an easy problem to solve. So let's leave it at this: If both men bring their best, it's Rashad's fight, because his best is a prime-of-your-career best, which should be enough to trump Tito's wily-veteran best. But who knows?
Why we should care: First and foremost, Evans has been promised a title shot if he wins, so that makes this bout relevant. Beyond that, all the X factors listed above add to the intrigue. And if you're interested in the sport's history and its legendary figures, this could be one of the last times you'll see Tito. And if you're interested in Tony Robbins-style positive thinking, you can see it tested.
"I felt horrible about my UFC 73 performance for years. That's one you want to get back."-- Rashad Evans, speaking of his first meeting with Tito Ortiz, a draw in 2008, during a recent conference call with members of the MMA media
"He's making a big mistake talking about me being 'lucky' to beat Bader and get this fight with him. His ass can't cash this check."-- Tito Ortiz, from a prefight blog he's been writing for ESPN.com
"I'm not worried about Tito's striking. If I worry about my own execution, it won't matter what Tito Ortiz does."-- Evans, from the conference call
"I invented this role of the [expletive] talker in the UFC. I was the first guy to do this and blow up because of it. I talked a ton of [expletive] about a lot of guys before fights to get attention and to establish my name and my Punishment brand. But I backed it up. ... Now Rashad's taking over that role. He talks a lot of crap, but I don't think Rashad backs his big mouth up like I did mine. Rashad isn't me, of course. I am the longest-reigning UFC 205-pound champion ever, and he couldn't hold on to the belt for one defense."-- Tito Ortiz, in a blog he's been writing for ESPN.com in the leadup to the fight
"It's great to fight in a city that has a great fight history."-- Evans on Philadelphia, home to fighters legendary (Joe Frazier), fictional (Rocky Balboa) and ageless (Bernard Hopkins)
"No, my insurance won't cover it. I'm out of my element. I know my element, and my element is to do what I've been doing since I was 9 years old. And no matter how many tricks I've got in the game, it's a different world when you're in MMA and the UFC world. These guys have more than one weapon. Yes, I have more than one weapon, but all of my weapons is on my two feet. I have to operate from that office. But when you have to operate from the ground up, it's a different ballgame. It's a different ballgame. I respect that, and you don't respect that, then you're a fool. And I'm not a fool."-- Hopkins, the 46-year-old WBC light heavyweight champion, in a video interview with MMAfighting.com's Ariel Helwani. He's included here because, after famously ridiculing MMA in the past, the Philadelphia fighter said he'll be at Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night as a fan.
Coast to coast: Although he's a West Coast guy who has fought most of his fights in that part of the country, including Las Vegas, Ortiz made two of his five light heavyweight title defenses within reach of Philadelphia.
School days: Back when Ortiz was wrestling at Cal State Bakersfield, he trained with Stephen Neal, the two-time NCAA Division 1 wrestling champion at heavyweight, who in 1999 beat none other than Brock Lesnar in the final. Neal went on to become a three-time Super Bowl-winning guard for the New England Patriots.
Name game: Rashad Evans is actually fighting Jacob Ortiz. That's Tito's given name. But don't expect Evans to use that against him. You don't make fun of someone's name if your own middle name is Anton. (Yes, this is an example of why we call this trivia "barely relevant.")
Back on his feet: Vitor Belfort is fighting for the first time since being felled by one of the great strikes in MMA history: Anderson Silva's front kick to the face. That's something Yoshihiro Akiyama should keep in mind as he utilizes footwork Saturday night. A few feints with the front foot might create some openings. Or he can just show up at the Octagon accompanied by actor-turned-striking-guru Steven Segal.
As young as you feel: Forgive Mike Pyle if he's having a déjà vu experience. Last October he was matched up with John Hathaway, a 23-year-old Brit who at 14-0 was fast on the rise ... until Pyle shot him down. Now Pyle has another phenom in front of him, and it's up to 22-year-old Rory MacDonald (11-1) to alter Pyle's experience from déjà vu to dazed and confused.