Considering that they've only had a few weeks to ramp it up, anticipation seems unusually high leading into this weekend’s UFC 133 main event between Tito Ortiz and Rashad Evans.
Certainly, it’s as high as it’s been in years for an Ortiz fight. The former long-time light heavyweight champion is experiencing one of the UFC’s most unexpected renaissances after saving himself from a forced retirement last month against Ryan Bader. Now – with just one win during the past four years – the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” appears poised to attain No. 1 contender status if he can pull off a second major upset over Evans on Saturday.
Perhaps more surprising than the first-round submission he notched against Bader at UFC 132 or even the position he now finds himself in, is that fans are suddenly rooting for Ortiz again. After squandering his status as the Octagon’s most popular and dependable performer during the early part of the 2000s, the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” had become a joke in MMA circles.
Winless since 2006, he’d trotted out an endless wave of excuses during the last few years, beefed publicly with his bosses and his opponents and his on-again, off-again porn star girlfriend. It was with no small measure of palpable relief and self satisfaction that perennial nemesis Dana White implied Ortiz would be cut from the company – or at least made to call it quits – if he didn’t defeat Bader on July 2.
Of course, then he did defeat Bader and a couple weeks later pulled off a major PR coup when he agreed to step in for the injured Phil Davis against Evans. The company hasn’t confirmed or denied that Ortiz could be in line for a shot at the goal if he wins again, but the prospect of such a turnaround is just too good not to root for.
Not that it will be easy. Ortiz goes off as a 3-1 underdog this weekend and as Evans himself has been sure to point out in interviews this week, his opponent is not Ryan Bader. Evans is also a former champion and the “Ultimate Fighter” season two winner and in terms of cage savvy alone he’s light years ahead of Bader. It seems unlikely Ortiz will be able to outwrestle the former Michigan State Spartan and if he manages to slip in a surprise punch (as he did at UFC 132), it’s unlikely a veteran like Evans would fall victim to the kind of arm-in guillotine the forced Bader to tap with just a little more than two minutes gone in the first round.
In other words, Ortiz has his work cut out for him against a hungry, even desperate Evans. This fight is just as big, if not bigger for Rashad, who will be making his first appearance in the Octagon since sitting out a year for a title shot that never materialized and then losing his home base training camp when he fell out with former friend Jon Jones and coach Greg Jackson. Evans desperately needs a win here to show the last 14 idle months were not a terrible mistake and also to claim the shot at Jones’ belt he want so badly.
It’s probably too much to hope for that Ortiz will what out of Philadelphia the No. 1 contender for the UFC title, having essentially undone a half-decade of ill will in just a few weeks. Then again, what if he does?