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Chances are that if you’ve followed mixed martial arts for any amount of time, you have at least a passing knowledge of who Tito Ortiz is. The guy rocking the flame licking trunks and the bleach-blond hair, who shows up on old UFC highlight videos body slamming Evan Tanner and getting wrecked by Chuck Liddell. Maybe you caught chapters of his late career renaissance, getting revenge against a geriatric “Ice Man” under the auspices of the short-lived Golden Boy MMA banner, or submitting a loquacious Chael Sonnen at Bellator 170 after catching repeated “Ls” at the pre-fight press conference.
It’s been seven and a half years and two comebacks since Ortiz left the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the promotion he helped bring out of the dark ages in the early 2000s courtesy of feuds with Ken Shamrock, Randy Couture and Liddell. But even as the gaffe-prone Ortiz has morphed more and more into a caricature -- the bumbling, big-headed staple of the Borrachinha Depot twitter page -- he remains at the top of the marquee and the MMA media cycle. After posting a 1-7-1 record in the final chapter of his UFC career, he’s made an unlikely resurgence and managed to piece together four wins with only one defeat; this weekend he’ll aim to stretch it to 5-1 at the Payne Arena in Hidalgo, Texas.
Ortiz’s dance partner on Saturday will be former WWE star Alberto Rodriguez, who moonlighted as an MMA fighter between 2001 and 2010 and infamously fought Mirko Filipovic at Pride Bushido 1 wearing a Lucha Libre mask. It’s a freakshow fight’s freakshow fight in an era typified by the outlandish, which anchors the eccentric Campbell McLaren’s Combate Americas 51 in the promotion’s first foray into the pay-per-view market.
It goes without saying that nobody outside “El Patron” was calling for the bout, with the most compelling “beef” between the two principals ostensibly being their opposing views on U.S. immigration policy. Given the historical failure of non-UFC pay-per-views, one suspects it will be a commercial flop, and unlikely to bring CA in from the margins of MMA relevance. You’ve got to think that the best-case scenario vis-à-vis the fisticuffs is that Ortiz gets Del Rio out of there quick without doing him any permanent damage; worst case is that the two men, with a combined age of 86, go the distance ala Ortiz-Bonnar.
And yet, despite all these factors, and the general scorn with which the MMA community has shown the fight and its build-up, one glance at Ortiz’s socials shows that the dude is putting in some serious rounds with popular media outlets, many of which current UFC fighters would be lucky to be featured on. In between full-length spots on TMZ and the Rich Eisen Show, he’s out there on one of the highest rated shows in history in Fox & Friends talking up his support for the President Trump, hitting up the red carpet with Sylvester Stallone & Co for the premier of Dazn’s ‘One Night’ documentary and hanging out with Steve Austin at his Broken Skull Bar. Hell, the fact that CA, however misguidedly, will be the third promotion after Bellator MMA* and Golden Boy MMA to use Ortiz as the Trojan Horse to the PPV market speaks to the guy’s status as a legitimately sought-after commodity.
Which is vexing, because he’s still doing Tito Ortiz things: talking up his chances against Jon Jones, nonsensically proposing a bout opposite Cain Velasquez, raging against his portrayal in ESPN’s 30 for 30 special on his rivalry with Chuck, spruiking his acting credentials (he once called himself the “next Vin Diesel”) and moshing for President Trump’s border wall. He’s inarticulate, deluded and hubristic. And his brand is stronger than ever.
Is that an indictment on the MMA community’s love of the absurd -- the cartoonish buffoonery and poorly-executed-pro-wrestling-gimmickry that attends Ortiz’s fights and media appearances? Or is Ortiz the embodiment of the American dream – the product of stubborn self-belief and an ingenious business savvy? Is he a finely cultivated UFC-adjacent brand, or a sideshow surviving on the fumes of an athletic career that ended nearly a decade ago? Are we to judge or is Ortiz to celebrate?
In Ortiz’s mind, he’s still the apex predator and a top draw at 205 pounds. And in a lot of ways, his genuine belief in the first translates into the actualisation of the second. Even if part of the demographic is watching out of morbid curiosity, one can bet the outcome of Saturday night’s headliner will lead the MMA news, and whatever inane garbage Ortiz says on the microphone and during the press conference with will be squeezed into several days of headlines.
In a game where lasting impressions are hard to mark, and even harder to translate into financial success, Ortiz’s staying power is a feat unto itself.
* Bellator announced that Ortiz would fight Rampage Jackson on pay-per-view in 2013. The bout was ultimately scrapped after Ortiz was injured and relegated to Spike TV.
Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.