Monday, June 27, 2011 | 6 p.m.
Three light heavyweight fighters stood above the rest in terms of star power when the UFC rocketed into popularity nearly a decade ago — Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz.
In the last six months, both Liddell and Couture have retired. Liddell announced his plans to step away before UFC 125, while Couture made a UFC 129 bout against Lyoto Machida his final fight.
“Is it time for me,” Ortiz wondered out loud last month while in Las Vegas. “I don’t know. I guess time will tell. I’m a lot younger than both of them, but I’ve been doing it as long as Couture and a lot longer than Liddell. I’ve had no serious injuries and I want to fight. I want to win. I want to compete.”
The result of his UFC 132 bout Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena should go a long way in determining how much longer he can compete. Ortiz (15-8-1 MMA, 14-8-1 UFC) faces Ryan Bader (12-1 MMA, 5-1 UFC) in one of the evening’s featured, pay-per-view contests.
The UFC is giving the 36-year old Ortiz one last chance to prove he can still hang with fighters at the top of the 205-pound division. Ortiz is on a 0-4-1 stretch and hasn’t won a fight in a nearly five years.
“This is a must-win for Tito Ortiz,” UFC President Dana White said earlier this year of Ortiz’s next fight. “Everyone knows that Tito and I have had a rocky relationship, but he's been with us since we started this company, and we're on good terms now. This is the biggest fight of his career.”
Ortiz would agree with White’s assessment. He’s aware of the consequences that another subpar performance would bring.
“If I lose, they’re going to cut me,” Ortiz said. “What am I going to do after that? I still want to fight, but do I go somewhere else? Do I even have that opportunity? Do they give me the chance to fight again and give me a lesser opponent instead of a top-five guy every time? I might need a chance to build my confidence, but I’m a guy who takes challenges.”
Ortiz’s biggest defense for his recent showings is the level of competition. Four of the five opponents during his winless streak — everyone except Matt Hamill at UFC 121 — were former UFC champions.
Although Ortiz says he wants to fight the best, he seems to begrudge the fact that he hasn’t received a favorable matchup in years — especially after recovering from two medical issues in 2009.
“After coming off of a back surgery and neck surgery, I would have loved the chance to get a warm-up fight,” Ortiz said. “But that never happened. I guess I have to take it as it comes and move on.”
UFC scheduled Ortiz to fight Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, who has now lost two straight, earlier this year at Fight Night 24. But Ortiz cancelled with a severe facial laceration.
Most see Bader as a much tougher matchup than Nogueira, but Ortiz wouldn’t go that far. He’s confident he can hand “The Ultimate Fighter” season 8 his second consecutive loss.
“I think I can beat Ryan with a smart game plan,” Ortiz said. “He’s a really good wrestler, his stand-up skills are decent enough and his submission defense is good. I’ve just got test his heart and his cardio.”
Knowing how much is at risk against Bader, Ortiz has decided to change a number of things in his training. For the first time in nine years, he stayed home in Huntington Beach, Calif., instead of traveling to Big Bear, Calif., for his camp.
Part of the reason for the switch was so he could have more training partners. He said he loved working out in the high altitude of Big Bear, but purchased a hyperbaric chamber to take its place.
Ortiz feels he’s done everything in his power to put on the best fight of his career. He’s got not other choice, because Ortiz isn’t ready to step away yet.
“I’m going to give my heart and soul and fight as hard as I possibly can,” Ortiz said. “That’s my job — I’m going to get my hand raised.”