What a strange month it’s been for Tito Ortiz.
The former UFC light heavyweight champion appeared to already have one foot out the door leading up to his expected going away party against Ryan Bader at UFC 132. Ortiz went into that bout as a 4-1 underdog, with his once-proud career in shambles after going winless during the last four-plus years and with his old nemesis in the organization’s front office licking his chops at the prospect of forcing “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” into retirement with one last, inevitable loss. You might say things looked pretty bleak.
“It's the last chapter," UFC President Dana White proclaimed leading up to the pay-per-view on July 2, with noticeable relief and certainly no small measure of satisfaction.
Then came the improbable right hand that dropped Bader to the canvas less than two minutes into their bout and the even more improbable arm-in guillotine Ortiz used to make the 28-year-old up-and-comer tap just a few seconds later. It was Ortiz’s first victory in five Octagon appearances and his first submission win since he got Yuki Kondo with a neck crank back in 2000. Yep, if words like “Yuki Kondo” and “neck crank” and “2000” don’t put the gravity of the situation in perspective for you, I don’t know what will.
The upset win at least temporarily staved off retirement, but eleven days later Ortiz pulled off an even bigger feat when he agreed to step in for an injured Phil Davis to face Rashad Evans at UFC 133. In accepting that short-notice fight, Ortiz suddenly found himself back in White’s good graces and -- perhaps most shocking of all -- unexpectedly remade into a fan favorite.
Make no mistake, there was a time about a decade ago when Ortiz was perhaps the popular and most dependable star on the UFC roster, but in recent years his career had devolved into an MMA punchline. His tidal wave of losses coupled with a never-ending parade of injury excuses, copious verbal gaffes, constant sniping with White and his decision to hitch his life-wagon to the world’s most famous pornographic film star made him an all-too-easy target for our ridicule.
Ridicule him we did -- unmercifully, in fact -- which is why it’s all the more surprising that many of us find ourselves sort of cheering for Ortiz going into Saturday. Nothing against Evans, another of MMA’s most undeservedly hated-on figures, but Ortiz’s startling career revival is too good to root against at the moment, especially with the company unwilling to confirm or deny that he could get one final shot at 205-pound gold if he can pull off a second straight upset victory.
What’s different about Ortiz today compared to July 1? Not much.
He won a fight and then made an easy PR move in agreeing to fight Evans on short notice, but he’s still the same guy as before. He’s still subject to do things like, say, wreck his six-figure luxury sedan while texting in traffic and then confess on Twitter to crying about it. He’s still stumbling through awkward trash-talking segments with his opponent and you get the feeling it’s only a matter of time before this honeymoon period with White comes to a crashing end.
At least for a few more days, however, Ortiz is back in our good graces and that probably says more about us than it does about him. Will his newly won status as a fan favorite persist beyond this weekend? That remains to be seen.
For the record, he’s going off as 3-1 underdog to Evans this Saturday, but even if his latest victory tour is short-lived, his forced retirement is likely on hold for now.
As for the UFC president? White must feel like he got to the end of that last chapter, only to find he’d just finished the first book in a much longer series.