At UFC 73, Tito Ortiz helped propel Rashad Evans to the next level of MMA super-stardom, showing the world that the cocky and brash young wrestler, winner of the second season of The Ultimate Fighter, could indeed compete with the sport's best. While it's easy now to think of Ortiz as the hapless veteran on a perpetual losing streak (until Ryan Bader entered the picture), each loss followed by a litany of excuses from "cracked skull" to "back surgery," in July, 2007, Ortiz was a considerable favorite to win.
Evans, who had won The Ultimate Fighter as a heavyweight, was considered too small to successfully battle one of the largest light heavyweights in history. And indeed, when the two met in the center of the cage for referee instructions, it was obvious Tito had a significant size advantage. But what he lacked in size, Evans made up in cardio conditioning, will, and an uncanny ability to escape back to his feet against the master of ground and pound.
The first two rounds were both Tito's. The first round was close, with Ortiz taking the younger wrestler down twice, and Evans gamely making it back to his feet, opening up a small cut over Tito's eye. The second round ended with Evans locked in a guillotine choke, saved by the bell from a disastrous defeat. Only the point deduction by referee "Big" John McCarthy, penalizing Ortiz for grabbing the fence on a takedown attempt, saved Evans from being down 2-0 on the judge's cards.
By the third round Ortiz had slowed significantly. He still managed a takedown, but Evans again escaped to his feet and landed a hard left hook. The fight came to an end with Evans controlling Ortiz in side control after a hard slam jarred the former champion. The result was a 28-28 draw - Ortiz would have won if he hadn't been docked a point.
How much has changed in the four years since their first match? Ortiz has struggled, both with his health and in the win/loss column, losing three of four fights. Evans has thrived. He knocked out Ortiz's nemesis Chuck Liddell, won the light heavyweight title from Forrest Griffin, and beat Quinton Jackson culminating one of the UFC's most memorable feuds. While Ortiz was in his prime as a fighter in the first bout, the 31 year old Evans should be at his physical best in the rematch. Can Ortiz beat Evans barely a month after his huge upset of Bader? Bloody Elbow reports Ortiz is a big underdog. Let's break it down:
Ortiz has dominated his opponents over the course of his 14 year career. Only Randy Couture,Chuck Liddell, and Matt Hamill have been able to resist his brutal double leg. In the first fight, he controlled Evans here, despite Rashad's Division I wrestling pedigree. There's nothing really to suggest that won't still be the case. Advantage: Ortiz.
Ortiz has been perfecting his submissions for years. Unbelievably, his win over Bader was only the second by a hold or lock in his entire career. But the threat is there, as Rashad likely recalls from the first fight when he was saved by the bell from a guillotine attempt. Evans has never won a UFC fight by submission - in fact I can't recall him ever attempting one. His modus operandi on the ground is to secure and maintain position. Ground and pound is a secondary concern. Submissions aren't even on his radar.
That said, he's never been caught in a submission. Ortiz, except for a loss by guillotine to Guy Mezger an eternity ago, has also never been tapped. The key to the grappling game will be control. Both are good at escaping from the bottom. Who wins the battle once it goes to the ground may be the key to this fight. And, wouldn't you know, they two are evenly matched. Advantage: Even.
Ortiz has worked diligently to improve his kickboxing. He debuted his suddenly robust set of striking technique against Ken Shamrock all the way back at UFC 40. Unfortunately, little has changed since then. He's made it so this isn't a glaring weakness - and managed to trade pretty evenly with Matt Hamill in their fight last year. Evans, by contrast, has made this a strength. He has fast hands and can land with power as Liddell, Jackson and Griffin all learned to their detriment. If Ortiz can't make it a grappling match a couple of times a round, he's going to lose. Advantage: Evans.
Clinch: Evans controlled Tito's longtime training partner "Rampage" Jackson from the clinch at UFC 114, using it to tire his opponent out. With Ortiz's age and history of skimpy training due to injuries, that might be a good strategy here as well. Ortiz is no slouch in this position, using his size and height to land crisp elbows and knees. Both set up takedowns from work in the clinch. It will be another spot we are likely to see stalemates in this fight. Whoever is assigned this bout will be one busy referee. Advantage: Even.
Intangibles: Evans is coming off a long layoff; it's been more than a year since he last set foot in the Octagon. Interestingly, Ortiz is the best example of how harmful that can be. He lost a year in both 2003 and 2005 and looked sluggish both times upon his return. If anyone can push through ring rust it is Evans, a fighter at the height of his powers. Ortiz has the opposite problem - he just fought at UFC 132. At 36, an injury prone 36, can his body handle the stress of another fight so soon after his battle with Bader?
The last minute matchup shouldn't effect either man - Evans was preparing for a wrester (Phil Davis) and Ortiz is fresh from a training camp for Bader, a similar but lesser version of Evans. The real "X" factor here is Rashad's move from Greg Jackson's camp in New Mexico. Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn are Rashad's longtime trainers, essentially the only significant trainer he's had as a professional fighter. How will he adjust to fighting without their influence in camp or in the corner. That might just be the biggest question surrounding this fight. Advantage: Evans.
I think Ortiz's age and injury history are a bigger issue than Rashad's layoff. Who do you think takes it? Sound off in the comments.