by Damon Martin – MMAWeekly.com
Ohio State and Michigan. The Yankees and the Red Sox. North Carolina and Duke. Ali and Frazier. The list of great sports rivalries could go on and on, but for the still fledgling sport of mixed martial arts, which is trying to build up its name and notoriety, a great rivalry can still go a long way towards bringing a lot of fans to the show.

Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, and a little show called The Ultimate Fighter helped to prove that the UFC could put up the kind of numbers that other live events held in Las Vegas and on pay-per-view couldn’t help but notice.

But before The Ultimate Fighter ever debuted, and before the UFC was holding live events on free television, there was Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock. It was, at the time, the most highly anticipated fight in UFC history. The second fight in this rivalry will take place at UFC 61 on Saturday night.

It’s rare in any sport when an athlete is able to build up the hype to such a fever pitch before any event they are competing in, to the point that fans are drawn to watch, no matter what the spectacle or size of venue, but for the UFC, that person is none other than the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy,” Tito Ortiz. From his first match when he stepped in as an alternate to defeat Wes Albritton in 1997, to his most recent fight where he defeated Ultimate Fighter 1 winner Forrest Griffin by decision, Tito Ortiz carries a certain aura about him that fans have flocked towards, whether they love or hate him.

No one can deny the skill behind Ortiz’s flamboyant attitude when he grabs the microphone, or cuts a promo before a fight in which he inevitably rips his opponent to shreds before the bout even starts. He always seems to find a way to say just the right thing to get under the skin of his opposition, and even after a loss, he can spin things back to focus on what he will be doing next.

While Tito’s star power can’t be denied, it was his request for more money after helping to keep the UFC alive during the dark days that turned so many fans against him. Looking back on the situation, and now looking at fighters who are still scrambling to earn $2,000 to fight in the UFC, it would seem that Tito Ortiz may not have been wrong for making the demands that he made.

While his movie career doesn’t exactly follow the path of an Oscar winner, Ortiz has been a great ambassador for the sport on TV shows such as “Last Call with Carson Daly” and “The Best Damn Sports Show Period.” Ortiz is always well spoken as he tries to educate the public and show the world why MMA is the greatest combat sport on the planet. Tito Ortiz is still arguably the most well-known and popular fighter to ever step foot in the Octagon, and that will always get crowds of people to buy tickets and pay-per-views to see him win, or maybe to see him lose.

When it was announced that Tito was being brought back to the UFC after months and months of back-biting and name-calling between the former Light Heavyweight Champion and UFC president Dana White, he was given a slot as coach on the company’s flagship show, The Ultimate Fighter.

It was easy to see during the season why Tito was a great choice to be a coach, as his team truly seemed to function well together, but it was the potential showdown with his perennial adversary, Ken Shamrock, that basically sealed the deal. It was established and announced before the filming of TUF 3 got underway that Ortiz and Shamrock would be fighting for a second time in the UFC after the conclusion of the season on Spike TV.

The third season of TUF also showed that while Tito was a great motivator and coach, Shamrock seemed to be there only for the rematch with Ortiz. Sure, Shamrock trained with his team and occasionally drilled them for getting lax on the job, but he seemed from the beginning to have his sights set on Tito and their eventual battle. In his first fight with Ortiz, Shamrock had a torn ACL before the fight, which he blamed for the loss after the fight, but Shamrock says that there will be no excuses this time.

It will be very interesting to see how the live crowd at UFC 61 reacts and cheers when Ortiz and Shamrock are shown on the big screen, and later when they make their ring entrances.

While Tito was definitely a fighter that everyone loved to hate for a great many of his bouts, he came out looking like the hero on TUF 3. He was a tremendous coach who really supported his team, and while he can be one of the most brash stars in the Octagon, it was his genuine nature and personality that seemed to shine on the show.

Shamrock, on the other hand, just looked like a bitter old man, hell-bent on revenge. It’s guaranteed that Shamrock will always have his fans and Ortiz will always have his detractors, but for those who were previously sitting on the fence, will TUF 3 help to sway their support?

It was never truly revealed how much of the tension that existed on the show between Ortiz and Shamrock was real and how much of it was manufactured, with certain situations almost looking escalated for television, but one thing is for sure: These two really don’t like each other, and they haven’t for a long time. Tito is known for being able to push his opponents’ buttons, and Shamrock has long been known to have a short fuse, so the personality clash in this rivalry just seems natural. Both fighters are extremely proud, and neither likes to back down from a challenge. While this fight is sure to be fun to watch, don’t expect the fighters to exchange birthday presents even after the fight is over.

The biggest drawback to this fight is the fact that the participants are almost surely headed in very different career directions. Tito Ortiz is 31 years old and still very much in the prime of his career. Outside of back-to-back losses to Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, two of the very best fighters on the planet, Ortiz has held his own with many other top names, including current Pride Middleweight Champion Wanderlei Silva, which very few fighters can claim. In Tito’s fight with Forrest Griffin on April 15th, it almost looked as though Tito was upset at the presumption that this kid who got to the big stage from a reality show was stepping into his house.

Tito’s domination of Forrest Griffin in the first round of their fight was almost scary, and it looked like the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” was truly back in form. After the first round, the ring rust set in, along with a nagging knee injury, and the final two rounds saw a much more lackluster performance. However, Ortiz did enough to get the decision victory from the judges and move on to face Shamrock in this fight.

Shamrock hasn’t tasted victory since his fight with Kimo back at UFC 48, which was almost exactly two years ago. Granted, Shamrock has only fought twice since then, but both of those fights were losses.

The first was a main event slot on the live season finale broadcast of The Ultimate Fighter 1 in April 2005, as Shamrock was matched up against Rich Franklin. Outside of a very good heel hook attempt, Shamrock looked almost confused at points, and he got pounded out in the first round by Franklin.

In a match-up of legends in October 2005, Shamrock took on former Gracie Killer Kazushi Sakuraba in Pride and lost by TKO in the first round of the fight, although the referee’s stoppage was very controversial. The only other recent fight on Shamrock’s record was his one-sided loss to Ortiz back in 2002. It could not be more obvious that Ken Shamrock is not the same fighter who was competing in the UFC back in 1996. That was ten years ago, and time seems to have caught up with Shamrock. He may learn that fact very harshly when he faces a rejuvenated Tito Ortiz at UFC 61.

With the exception of a solid punch that dropped Ortiz to one knee during their first bout, Shamrock was largely ineffective with any kind of offense. As the fight went on, it was clear that his cardio wasn’t up to snuff, either. The UFC is fortunate to have so much heat to use in building up this fight, because if too many fans re-watch the first bout between Ortiz and Shamrock, they might not want to pay for the same thing in the rematch.

Tito Ortiz has the skill and ability to beat just about any fighter in the world if he puts his heart and soul into the fight, and it’s likely that he’ll be going all-out to silence Shamrock once and for all. While this fight was in question for a brief period after Ortiz’ fight with Forrest Griffin due to the previously mentioned knee injury, Ortiz is apparently 100% and ready to fight. Not much has been heard out of Shamrock’s camp, but from all accounts, he is also healthy and will now have to put up or shut up.

No strategy works better for Ortiz than taking his opponent down and unloading on them with punches and elbows. While Mark Coleman may have pioneered ground and pound in the UFC, Tito Ortiz has helped to perfect it. If he stays active, his ground game can be downright brutal. Unless Ortiz wants to just stand and trade strikes with Shamrock to show that he can, it’s likely that Ortiz will take this fight to the clinch or the ground and just wear away at Shamrock.

While it would be nice to give a complete analysis of what Shamrock can do to win this fight, the fact is that he has puncher’s chance and not much else. He is still very capable of pulling out a submission, but with as much grappling experience as Ortiz has, a submission win for Shamrock doesn’t seem likely. Shamrock still throws heavy leather, and that will be his best shot at winning this fight: Throwing a haymaker, closing his eyes, and praying that it lands.

If Tito Ortiz performs the way that he is capable of performing, and if he looks even half as good as he did against Forrest Griffin, Ken Shamrock could be sent packing early in the night. Look for Ortiz to impress with his improved boxing and then take Shamrock down repeatedly until he pounds him into submission or a referee’s stoppage.

My Prediction: Tito Ortiz will win by TKO in Round 2