Tito Ortiz says his July win over Ryan Bader was like an out-of-body experience. | Photo: Sherdog.com
When 2011 began, Tito Ortiz was an afterthought at 205 pounds, a fading draw past his expiration date. When 2011 ended, people thought virtually the same thing. Whether January or December, the dismissals of Ortiz as a relevant fighter were so uniform, you’d suspect that nothing had even happened in the months between.
This summer had something for us, though: another one of MMA’s ever-charming, eye-popping, head-scratching upsets that we would talk about for years.
Ortiz’s role in the UFC and the larger MMA landscape was obvious for some time. In recent years, his accomplishments were more TMZ than UFC, and his bizarre, post-fight medical self-diagnoses and excuses had become the stuff of high mockery. His purpose was a gatekeeper to the stars, a name that could bolster a UFC bill with casual fans and maybe provide a launching pad to stardom. Creeping toward 40 years old, Ortiz hadn’t won a fight over someone not named Ken Shamrock since his contentious April 2006 split decision over an immature Forrest Griffin, had been fighting once a year, and was coming off a fairly one-sided loss to Matt Hamill.
So, last July, when Ortiz was selected as the opponent for “The Ultimate Fighter 8” winner Ryan Bader, who came of the first loss of his career against now-champ Jon Jones, it seemed like a familiar mechanism. Bader needed the confidence and Ortiz had the profile. It was all the better fit for UFC 132 on July 2, headlined by a fantastic-but-low-profile UFC bantamweight title bout between Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber in Las Vegas. This was a boilerplate get-‘em-over fight, cast in the die.
A minute into their bout, Bader had landed leg kicks and his right hand, and the former ASU Sun Devil seemed to be, as expected, a step ahead of Ortiz. Forty seconds later, Ortiz landed a short, stubby right hook that collapsed Bader’s knees. The sheer shock of the moment seemed to freeze the MMA populace. When they came to, Bader had crawled his way into an airtight arm-in guillotine by Ortiz.
The shocked feeling continued to swell, wave after wave. Bader’s attempts to extricate himself were feeble, making it all the more clear that the fight was a wrap. Still, until he tapped with his last bit of gusto, it seemed unbelievable that Ortiz was just seconds away from actually winning. When Ortiz got up and launched into his trademark gravedigger routine with an unprecedented fervor and passion, it didn’t even seem familiar. So many people I talked to after the fact sang the same song as me: Ortiz hadn’t had opportunity for his signature celebration in so long that we had forgotten it even existed.
How shocking was Ortiz’s win, especially his method of victory? In spite of Ortiz’s perpetually outsized expectations of his himself, it shocked even him.
“I had an out-of-body experience. It’s like I was watching myself do it. Everything was in slo-mo. It was kind of like in ‘The Matrix.’ It was weird,” Ortiz said after the bout.
And, like all of us, Ortiz couldn’t believe he had actually won, even after Bader tapped.
“I didn’t want to let go because I wasn’t sure what was going on, because like I said, I had an out-of-body experience,” Ortiz confessed. “I didn’t know how to react. I was like, ‘I’m not letting go until the referee rips me off.’ I don’t mean to hold on to a submission longer than I was supposed to, but I wasn’t letting go. I wanted to win.”
“I’ll be honest, I thought that was going to be Tito’s last fight,” UFC President Dana White said through laughter during a July 14 media conference call. “I thought Bader was going to win that fight and I thought Tito was going to retire.”
A five-to-one underdog prior to the bout, Ortiz was the largest underdog on the UFC 132 bill. More importantly than a purely numerical underdog, though, Ortiz’s triumph over Bader represents a true fighting upset.
“Tonight, I made a stepping stone of Ryan Bader and he said he was going to make a stepping stone of me. But he ain’t stepping on this champion, hell no,” Ortiz boasted after saving his UFC employment with the victory. Yet, his victory wasn't the start of anything new; it simply bought Ortiz more time in the Octagon. Unlike a bout in which an unknown fighter storms to prominence against a bigger name, this wasn’t a case of the cream rising to the top. In fact, it was the opposite.
Ortiz’s win bought him a late replacement spot against Rashad Evans at UFC 133 one month later, and despite losing that, a bout with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 140 in December. Both Evans and Nogueira pounded Ortiz to the body and stopped him. Meanwhile, Bader returned in November and knocked out Jason Brilz to set himself up against former UFC champion Quinton Jackson in February.
Ortiz’s win is what a good upset is all about: a weird, freaky aberration that reminds us of the volatile nature of MMA. In spite of what happened in July, Ortiz is still just 1-6-1 in his last eight Octagon appearances and is being ushered toward retirement.
“I haven’t had to deal with many negative things in my career. Now, I see, ‘You suck. You lost to Tito,’” Bader told ESPN.com in the weeks after the bout.
It’s a nasty scarlet letter to wear, but it’s further evidence of a first-class upset. Even when looking at all-time greats like Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre, one can’t fully forget the names of Daiju Takase and Matt Serra. Ryan Bader has his work cut out for him to exorcise these demons in the minds of the masses, and where there be demons, there be great upsets.