At the top of the week, when the perfect storm of relatively slow MMA news days and the sport’s ongoing self-esteem issues launched a wildly over the top response to a throwaway line in a Golden Globes speech, Bellator MMA President Scott Coker invited Meryl Streep to his next event. While the Twitter-posted open letter succeeded in what was likely Coker’s primary intent—to gain more attention for Bellator 170 this weekend—it doesn’t seem to have attracted the actress’s attention at all. Which is all for the best. Because, if anyone was going to try to seriously present a case for the artistry of mixed martial arts to anyone, an event headlined by Tito Ortiz and Chael Sonnen in 2017 probably shouldn’t be their opening salve. At best, you could argue that Sonnen vs Ortiz on this stage at this point in their careers is Shakespearian... but that’s only true in the sense that it’s full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
While the fight itself was never going to be one of the ages—not at this point in either of their careers, not at this point in Tito’s surgical history—the spirit of the matchup has all of the raw material for a compelling clash. Sonnen does a hell of a job selling the fight in a recent video promo.
“I’m on a legends ass-whipping tour and I’m starting with Tito Ortiz” has promise as a gimmick—a similar one worked wonders for Randy Orton in the early aughts. And the way he weaves his working-class ethics, his adoration of his father, and the 1997 amateur wrestling victory that he holds over Ortiz together makes the fight sound like something out of a particularly poignant Springsteen song. But this hardworking student-turned-fighter quest to make good on a deathbed promise to his blue collar father by finally scoring an MMA victory over the UFC golden boy that he bested on the mats two decades ago has somehow taken a backseat to random Rousey speculation and other half-hearted rabble-rousing of the Sonnen variety. His randomly capslocked tweets in Tito’s direction suggest that he’s more subconsciously haunted by the bullshit that Bill pulled in the final episode of True Blood than engaging in a deep psychological battle with the only man standing between him and the ability to fulfill what he calls “the only promise I never [kept].”
Ortiz’s side of the equation is not without its gravity, either. The end, which looms over all fights in an abstract way in the sense that any given bout could be the end of your career—or even your life, is far from just an abstract concept this time around. And yet, as Ortiz, who will turn 42 shortly after Bellator 170, faces the end of his time in the cage, there seems to be little imperative to make this last match any sort of grand finale or final statement on a career packed with highs, lows, and almost every single growing pain the sport has witnessed in the past two decades.
Even the reason for his retirement—one which we’ll see more and more of in the years to come as our favorite stars grow older and their bodies can no longer recover from combat or even the preparation of combat—has been presented with begrudging acceptance. “This retirement is well due. Twenty years of competition has pretty much, I’d still be fighting it wasn’t for my surgeries,” he admitted before running through a list of spinal fusions, knee surgeries, stitches and concussions that work better as a PSA against MMA than a testament to the dying days of a broken warrior’s battles.
Which is a shame, really. Even a fight booked largely out of nostalgia, the way that your fifteenth favorite band from the eighties is booked at a local casinos, deserves better than what we’ve seen here. Even when it involves two fighters who have, arguably, worn out their welcome in the MMA, perhaps more than once, there’s enough history in this fight (both between the two men and in their individual careers) to merit more than the collective meh that’s unfolding now.
Perhaps this is the greatest sign of all, though, that the time for both of these men has passed. For two fighters whose careers thrived on the strength of personality almost as much as it did on skill, losing one’s head and mouth is almost as deadly as losing one’s striking power or jaw. When your ability to stand and bang in our outside of the cage fades, maybe there’s nothing left to do but end with a whimper.
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