This weekend Bellator MMA takes center stage with arguably the biggest show it has ever promoted. The card, called Dynamite, has people excited for a few reasons. First, because it will feature not just MMA bouts, but also a handful of kickboxing matches courtesy of a partnership with Glory. Secondly, because it will feature a one-night tournament between four of Bellator's best light heavyweights: Emanuel Newton, Phil Davis, Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal, and Linton Vassell. And finally, because the card's main event pits Bellator's current light heavyweight champion and fastest-rising star Liam McGeary, with aging MMA legend Tito Ortiz.
When it comes to this main event however, the thing that seems to be getting people excited is not the prospect of a competitive title fight. Instead, the majority of the MMA world appears more interested in just how quickly the champ can put the old dog down. That it is to say, Ortiz is being counted out, and labeled as little more than a resume-builder for McGeary. The betting odds, which have Ortiz pegged as a steep underdog at around +350, reflect this widespread sentiment, and really, it's easy to understand why this is the case.
For all the accolades he amassed in his heyday as the light heavyweight champion of the UFC, Ortiz is now 40 years old. He's also got a hell of mileage on his body, which has resulted in his looking rather tender recently, having been stopped on body strikes twice in his last 5 appearances. Furthermore he sports a rather ugly record of 3-7-1 in his last 11 fights. And while it's true that he is currently on a two fight win-streak, neither of his recent wins was particularly jaw-dropping. To recount, the first saw him score an early submission win over Alexander Shlemenko which, while certainly impressive, was dulled by the notable size advantage Ortiz carried into the bout. The second, which was his most recent outing, saw him earn a lackluster split decision over Stephan Bonnar who has not been a competitive light heavyweight for years. So, while Ortiz does have some wind in his sails, it's not a particularly strong wind.
But is it wise to count him out? Surely, a grizzled veteran of Ortiz's caliber is not without avenues to victory. Well, let's take a look at the precedent for such things.
In recent years, we've seen multiple fighters return from the brink of obsolesce, bouncing back to relevance with the unpredictability of ricocheting bullets. Mark Hunt, for example, entered the UFC with the aura of a washed up fighter, too stubborn to quit. A few years later he was contending for the interim heavyweight title. Andrei Arlovski, similarly, was left for dead after four straight losses in Strikeforce. Now, he's arguably in line for a UFC heavyweight title shot. Even Robbie Lawler, who now guards the UFC welterweight title with the ferocity of a mother grizzly, was counted out not too long ago.
It's also worth noting that, though he's showed all the signs of a fighter on the way out, it's not like Ortiz has never surprised us before. Back in 2011, if you'll recall, he was expected to be torched by Ryan Bader. Less than two minutes into their fight, however, Bader was teetering on the edge of consciousness, tapping furiously to be freed from a deep guillotine choke. Even Ortiz's win over Shlemenko came as a surprise. Sure, he entered the bout with a noteworthy size advantage, but Shlemenko was Bellator's middleweight champion at the time, and appeared to have all the skills necessary to crumple Ortiz like an empty beer can at a frat party. Yet once again, Ortiz found a path to victory.
Finally, it cannot be ignored that while Ortiz has certainly grown fragile in recent years, he's not without his strengths. To this day, though he has slowed down, he's still got a strong wrestling base. In the same way, his ground and pound undoubtedly remains a truly miserable thing to be on the wrong end of. He's also only been submitted once, and has only been stopped by head-strikes a handful of times—he's still a tough man to finish. And then, of course, there's his experience edge. With 30 pro fights, Ortiz has precisely three times the experience of his looming opponent. Now, we know that MMA is hardly a numbers game, but there is one thing we can take away from the experiential disparity between these two fighters, and it is this: Ortiz has fought plenty of hungry young lions like McGeary in the past. McGeary has never fought a battle-tested veteran like Ortiz. Sure, the former UFC champion's sound-bites often leave us scratching our heads in confusion, but he does possess an in-cage guile that can only be achieved through years in the crucible of combat.
Now, let's backtrack a bit. On Saturday night, Liam McGeary should leave San Jose's SAP Center as the Bellator light heavyweight champion—as the odds suggest he will and as most fight fans believe he will. There is, however, a real possibility that after the light heavyweight tournament is done, after Saulo Cavalari and Zack Mwekassa have duked it out for the Glory light heavyweight title, after appearances by big names like Paul Daly and Josh Thomson, we may just see Tito Ortiz's signature grave-digger victory celebration. And in the moments thereafter, he might exit the cage with a gold belt around his waist for the first time since November of 2002.