Tito Ortiz (left) will face Rashad Evans in a rematch at UFC 133. | Photo: Dave Mandel
Tito Ortiz was not supposed to be here.
Just weeks ago, Ortiz was a man many believed was on the brink of retirement. After a winless five-fight stretch that featured four losses and a draw, the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” appeared to be on his last legs as a UFC light heavyweight. Then came UFC 132.
In the blink of an eye, Ortiz clocked heavy favorite Ryan Bader with a short right hook and pounced, seizing his opportunity to lock up a fight-ending guillotine choke. After searching for an end to his in-ring tribulations for nearly four years, it took Ortiz a little less than two minutes to jerk his UFC career off of life support.
Now, Ortiz will tangle with Rashad Evans at UFC 133 on Saturday in the 36-year-old’s first main event billing since 2009. Making his inaugural appearance at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Ortiz will ride a massive wave of momentum created by his one-sided victory over Bader on July 2.
“[After beating Bader], I felt all the hard work had paid off. All the questions had been answered, thank God,” Ortiz said during a media teleconference. “I just can't explain the emotions. Everything was on the line. My heart was so touched just knowing that I was still one of the few guys on top. I’ve always thought of myself like that. I felt like an animal having his first meal after a long winter.”
Following the win, Ortiz planned to take some time away from the cage to focus on his various business interests, as well as to spend time with his family. However, when duty -- or, more specifically, UFC President Dana White -- called, the former champion rose to the occasion. He accepted the Evans bout on only three weeks’ notice after both Jon Jones and Phil Davis withdrew from the bill due to injury.
“By taking a week off, I think I got enough rest, because when I got back into the gym, I was hungry again. There have been times during the camp that have been really challenging, but my trainers pushed me really hard in certain areas,” said Ortiz. “When I was trying to find the energy to fulfill those things, they say, ‘Tito, you remember what it felt like to win?’ And all of a sudden, I’d feel a bolt of energy in my body. That’s the hunger, the eye of the tiger.”
In front of Ortiz lies a familiar adversary, as he met Evans four years ago at UFC 73. Ortiz was penalized a point in the contest for repeatedly grabbing the fence, resulting in a unanimous draw. While Evans went on to capture light heavyweight gold the following year, Ortiz dropped consecutive contests to Lyoto Machida, Forrest Griffin and Matt Hamill.
Though both men hold intimate knowledge of the other as a result of their first matchup, they have asserted that they are completely different fighters this time around. For Ortiz, that statement is as much about his physical well-being as it is about his technical evolution as a mixed martial artist. Having recently undergone neck surgery, Ortiz says he feels healthier than he has in nearly a decade.
“When I got up out of bed in the morning before, I felt like an old man. I would be moaning and groaning. It was because of the injuries, and I got them fixed. They’re no longer there anymore,” said Ortiz. “I get up now, and I’m excited to train and put my work in. We put in three training sessions a day, five days a week. It’s grueling training, but I know I’m in great shape.”
While both fighters profess to have made great strides in technique since their first encounter, Ortiz believes the bout will come down to the intangibles. As a 14-year pro and one of the UFC’s first stars with mainstream appeal, Ortiz has seen his share of ups and downs in MMA, a fact that the veteran plans on using to his advantage in the rematch against Evans.
“My advantage would be my heart, of course,” he said. “He’s fast. His wrestling skills are good. I’ll give him that. His boxing skills have gotten better, but I’m prepared for anything and everything. I’m going in focused and mentally positive, knowing that my hand is going to be raised.”