0

Ortiz returns to UFC ring after 18-month layoff, feud with owner

Photo by Neil Davidson

Photo by Neil Davidson

Tito Ortiz and his former manager made all kinds of threats against each other over the past few years. They even considered a boxing match to settle their differences when their simmering feud boiled over last year.

Trouble is, when you're an elite mixed martial artist and your former manager is Dana White, that's probably not a fight you can win.

Ortiz's dispute with the Ultimate Fighting Championship president, along with several other problems, kept him away from the UFC spotlight for the past 18 months. Yet it also provided plenty of time for the popular former light heavyweight champion to heal from a back injury that crimped his past few fights, along with the hurt feelings on both sides.

"I kind of missed Dana, too," Ortiz said with a laugh. "You know what they say, you only hurt the ones you love."

Now that his feud with White is squashed, Ortiz is headed back to the octagon with good health and a clear focus on reclaiming his title in what would be a remarkable second act to a career that seemed finished. Ortiz will meet Forrest Griffin in his comeback fight Saturday night to close UFC 106 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.

"I'm looking forward just to walking out there into the arena and feeling the energy again," Ortiz said. "I haven't felt that energy in the last 18 months -- that, and getting my hand raised."

The rematch of Ortiz's competitive split-decision victory over Griffin in 2006 was moved to UFC 106's main event after heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar was forced to drop off the pay-per-view card with an apparent intestinal problem that has threatened his career.

Ortiz hasn't fought for UFC since May 2008, when he lost a unanimous decision to Lyoto Machida. Two fights earlier, he was stopped by Chuck Liddell in a light heavyweight title shot, and growing injuries were slowing down Ortiz with each passing month.

Ortiz now acknowledges he wasn't himself during his last few UFC fights. He still has the longest continuous title run in league history after holding the light heavyweight crown for nearly 3 years from 2000-03, but he fought sparingly after losing that title to Randy Couture.

"When I got injured, everything went downhill after that," said Ortiz, who had spinal fusion surgery. "I was just training to survive for each fight. ... I only took the first fight with (Griffin) because we had sold out the Honda Center (in Ortiz's native Orange County, Calif.)"

When Ortiz and White were brought together earlier this year by a mutual friend shortly before UFC 100 in July, they finally realized the advantages of not hating each other for countless perceived slights over the years.

"I don't even think about it at all any more," White said. "We moved forward and went back to work, and that's what Tito does."

Veteran Mark Coleman originally was scheduled to be Ortiz's comeback opponent, but Coleman dropped out with an injury. The assignment then went to Griffin, who cut short his honeymoon and went directly into training.

The relatively late notice might have helped Griffin, notorious for overtraining and leaving himself sapped of strength on fight night. Griffin's hit-and-miss style made him a crowd favorite and even a light heavyweight champion for seven months last year, but he realizes all eyes will be on Ortiz on Saturday.

"I get to be a headline fight coming off two losses, and that's a big deal for me," said Griffin, who lost to Rashad Evans and Anderson Silva in his last two bouts. "I want to be a headline fighter. I get to be in there and be the last fight of the night, and that's great for me."

Ortiz has trained to fight a wrestler, but he also worked for six weeks with boxing trainer Freddie Roach, the mastermind behind Manny Pacquiao's rise.

He woke up Thursday morning weighing 220 pounds, Ortiz said on his Twitter feed, anticipating the familiar weight cutdown to the 205-pound limit. Ortiz was dreading the combination of starvation and exercise -- but he also seemed thrilled to be back in his element.

"I don't think there's anything for me to prove besides winning another light heavyweight title, and that's what I want to do," Ortiz said. "I wouldn't have signed a six-fight contract if I didn't want it. I'm only 34 years old. Randy Couture started his career at 34. To get back to the elite level and beat a champion, I've got to beat these guys."