One of the landmark events in UFC history took place when Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock stepped into the octagon to do battle. It also began perhaps the sport’s most memorable trilogy, even though it proved to be one-sided.
Ortiz and Shamrock had taken different paths to their fight, developing their own separate reputations in the UFC. Shamrock was part of mixed martial arts “royalty,” someone who was in the Ultimate Fighting Championship from the very first event and even prior to that, as he fought professionally in the Pancrase organization in Japan. Shamrock had built an image around not only his achievements inside the octagon, but with a special brand of ferocity and charisma. He had a shrine among training centers in the “Lion’s Den,” which had not only produced him but a host of other professional MMA fighters. As part of the “wild west’ days of UFC action, he was a reminder of the organization’s roots.
Ortiz represented the “new guard.” He was brash and cocky; a “bad boy” from Huntington Beach, California, a product of a 21st Century generation marked by the molding of fighters by design for MMA action. While Shamrock was the square-jawed super-hero type, Ortiz was, to many people, the guy they loved to hate; more of the “anti-hero.” Ortiz was a former client of Dana White before White had taken over the UFC. Shamrock had an iron resolve and even though he was a UFC pioneer, he had a mindset that was rather independent of the organization.
So the fight was significant – bridging the gap from one era of competitor to the next.
Bad blood between the two added the kind of personal angle that always helps a fight sell. At UFC 19 in Bay St. Louis, Miss., Ortiz defeated one of Shamrock’s Lion’s Den proteges, Guy Mezger. In the aftermath he acted, in Shamrock’s view, very disrespectfully toward him through his treatment of Mezger, namely wearing a T-shirt that said “Gay Mezger is my bitch.” Shamrock, clearly in the twilight of his career and feeling the effects of many battles, said, “I can not leave the game without fighting him.”
And so the stage was set. The bout was scheduled for November 22, 2002 in Las Vegas.
By the time he got around to fighting Shamrock, Ortiz had won the UFC light heavyweight title and defended it four times. But he had not fought since defending against Vladimir Matsyushenko in September 2001; five months later, he had torn an ACL and has sat out since. Shamrock did not exactly have the advantage of more activity; he had fought only four times in a period of six years and was idle for the previous nine months since he lost to Don Frye in Pride. At age 38, this could be his last moment of glory.
The MGM Grand Garden was sold out for the event, which had clearly captured the public’s imagination. It also became of the highest-rated pay-per-view events in the UFC’s history, drawing an estimated 150,000 subscribers. Shamrock came out for the fight with a furor, and nailed Ortiz in the very first round with a big right hand that out the Huntington Beach Bad Boy on the floor. But as the bout wore on, Shamrock gradually got worn down by the grueling pace, and by the youth of Ortiz, who hit him with clean shots in the stand-up position and damaged “The Most Dangerous Man on Earth” with elbows and forearm smashes It turned into less a contest as it did a display of extreme heart by Shamrock. But those hours in the Lion’s Den could only take him so far.
At the end of the third round of the scheduled five-round affair, Shamrock was held back by his corner, retiring after fifteen minutes of what had been a brutal experience for him. He showed class by congratulating his victorious opponent. But if people thought Ken Shamrock was going to go away, they were wrong. He’d be back – for two more trips around the block with Ortiz.