No fighter was more consequential in shaping mixed martial arts as we know it than Tito Ortiz.
That sentence looks absurd even as I type it. Today, we know Tito Ortiz as a once-great fighter whose title reign ended more than 13 years ago, who's forever assuring us that he's free of injuries before a fight and forever apologizing afterward because he cracked his skull, who lets fight-hype rhetoric decompose into word salad, and who once went 1-7-1 over a span of six years. Just under 20 years after his MMA debut, he's riding fumes and artificial ligaments into what he says is his final fight against Chael Sonnen at Bellator 170 this Saturday.
But MMA has a history going back further than "what have you done for us lately," and Jacob Christopher Ortiz has left fingerprints all over the sport that we know, love, and watch. Royce Gracie might have been there for the starting pistol, but Ortiz—who didn't have his relatives seeding the tournament brackets with alcoholic strip-mall dojo rejects—was the first dominant champion in the rounds-and-rules UFC. A bleached-blonde alpha-bro from Orange County who used his elbows to smash his opponents inside their guard until the bumps on their face became oversized Braille messages, he also knew how to use pro-wrestling theatrics to draw a crowd. The Huntington Beach Bad Boy was the intersection of athlete and entertainer that the promoters stubbornly pushing an outlaw sport into the mainstream thought its target audience wanted.
And guess what? They were right. Ortiz set a UFC pay-per-view record with his one-sided TKO of Ken Shamrock in 2002. Four years later, he hoisted Shamrock off his feet and beat him into unconsciousness on Spike TV, drawing more 18-to-34-year-old males than the first game of the World Series. Two and a half months later, Ortiz played the final victim of Chuck Liddell's title run while 1.1 million people paid for the privilege, a pay-per-view buy rate matching Ronda Rousey's last appearance. He was the face of a UFC that was growing more professional in appearance, and he understood the contours of the ground shifting beneath him better than any of his peers.
Ortiz debuted at UFC 13, an SEG-era show in Georgia where he subbed in for Enson Inoue. Ortiz kept the company of bar-brawling tough guys like David "Tank" Abbott (the sparring partner who headlined UFC 13 and who Ortiz later had a falling out with, allegedly because he wouldn't give Ortiz money for a lawyer to beat an assault charge), but he was a wrestler through and through. Once he learned to nudge his supine opponents into the Octagon's chain links—maybe following Abbott's example—he turned the guard Gracie made famous into a position of hapless desperation. Besides being ground-and-pound's missing link between Mark Coleman and Fedor Emelianenko, Ortiz was a master manipulator of his weight and he was rarely the smaller fighter, manhandling and brutalizing Jerry Bohlander, Guy Mezger, and, until he gassed out in the fourth round of a fight from 1999 that's still really cool to watch, Frank Shamrock. By the time he claimed the 200-pounds-and-under middleweight championship belt, which became the light heavyweight title with the dawn of the Unified Rules, he was a perfect late 1990s avatar for literally smashing the old guard: a bleached-blonde head stuffed into flame shorts you'd find at Pacific Sunwear.
Ortiz was also one of MMA's first and best self-promoters. Before fighters filled the real estate on their shorts with the logos of off-brand energy drink companies, he wore a shirt advertising a purveyor of violent pornography and later started his own clothing line. He made cameos in a Korn music video and a Jet Li movie, and became as big a celebrity as Zuffa had to work with when rejiggering the UFC. Ortiz headlined the shows, and the nu-metal soundtrack and over-the-top production mirrored his personality. Ortiz stepped all over English syntax while cutting self-serious post-fight promos and his gravedigger routine was always lame, but they showed a savvy his champion peers lacked: if he showed personality, he knew he'd make better money.
And while Ortiz wasn't the first UFC fighter to start a feud, he was the first to harness rivalries to put asses in the seats. When Ortiz put on a homemade t-shirt that said "GAY Mezger Is My Bitch"—such was the capacity for casual homophobia in the late 1990s—he made Ken Shamrock, Mezger's coach and UFC pioneer, lose his shit. By the time the two fought in November 2002, Ortiz had defended his title four times, and their bout at UFC 40 drew a then-record-breaking 150,000 pay-per-view buys. Shamrock took a beating in what's still maybe the most one-sided title fight the UFC has ever promoted, and yet through the sheer force of their personalities, they ran it back twice more and got a full season of The Ultimate Fighter, one in which Ortiz played the doting mentor and Shamrock was the aggro blowhard, to prop it up. After losing his belt, Ortiz turned rivalries with Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin into multi-fight paydays. His feuds extended to the UFC brass, specifically former manager Dana White, who in 2007 made a TV special solely aimed at showing that Ortiz—a fighter still under UFC contract—was afraid to fight him in a boxing match.
Once a self-assured UFC no longer needed Ortiz at the top of the marquee, his place was less secure: was he a legend or a self-parody? His malapropisms while commentating at the final Affliction event—"let me tell you how you feelin' right now"—are incredible. His tumultuous relationship with porn star Jenna Jameson and his appearance on Celebrity Apprentice were TMZ fodder. His body broke down frequently and often—maybe because of a training schedule that he once claimed took eight to 10 hours of every day—and an index of injuries and surgeries accompanied every ugly loss to the likes of Matt Hamill. His final run in the UFC was stacked high with defeat, but he remained on the UFC roster because of a fluke guillotine choke of Ryan Bader and nostalgia.
And yet after his first go at retirement in 2012 (following a trilogy bout with Forrest Griffin that he deserved to win), Ortiz enjoyed a surprising run in Bellator. He choked out the undersized Alexander Shlemenko like he was in Japan with Yuki Kondo, then drew record ratings for a crappy split-decision over Stephan Bonnar, showing the value of taking the low road. His submission loss to Liam McGeary was a moral victory: even at 40 years old, Ortiz could contend for a title and actually deserve it. And with the high-profile swan song against Sonnen this weekend, he's hyping the fight by smashing juice boxes on camera and saying awkward things like, "All I hear is gas coming out of his ass, and it's not his butt" and "I hope Chael's in great shape because when I'm on top of him, he's going to shit himself."
Dismissing Ortiz as a punch line, however, dismisses just how influential he's been—even Khabib Nurmagomedov, one of the best fighters in the sport today, fights like a refined version of the Ortiz that tore through Evan Tanner. But his greatest contribution was in helping shepherd the sport in its journey from near extinction to rabbit ears TV. He was the first outsized MMA personality clamoring for attention in a sea of anonymity. And this much is beyond dispute: if the "Face the Pain" theme became a person, it would probably look, act, talk, and fight like Tito Ortiz.