INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Tito Ortiz strode away from the cage and up a ramp toward a giant glowing board reading “Thank You.” He turned to the roaring crowd, raising his hands in appreciation.
After two pioneering decades in mixed martial arts, the Huntington Beach Bad Boy can walk away in style.
“Tonight was a dream,” Ortiz said. “Tonight was a movie.”
Ortiz choked out Chael Sonnen midway through the first round at Bellator 170 on Saturday night, putting a fitting finish on the former UFC light heavyweight champion’s career.
Ortiz (19-12-1) hadn’t fought since September 2015, and he claims this fight will be his last. He stepped into the Forum cage two days before his 42nd birthday, and he left with a cathartic finish of a fellow MMA luminary who had taunted and infuriated him for weeks.
“I did hold onto the choke longer than I should, and I did it because I had ill will,” Ortiz said. “I was a lion. I felt like an animal.”
Ortiz made quick work of Sonnen (28-15-1), who made his Bellator debut after a 3 1/2-year absence from MMA. After avoiding an early choke attempt by Sonnen, Ortiz threw enough elbows to get into position for a rear naked choke, forcing Sonnen to tap out 2:03 into the opening round.
The victory was just the fourth in 10 years for Ortiz, but few had ever been more satisfying.
“He never had me,” Ortiz said. “It was never tight. I’m just happy that I was able to do this in a respectful way in front of my hometown. ... This is the last time that I’ll be fighting. Thank you guys for the support for 20 years.”
The main event was Bellator’s latest matchup of two big-name mixed martial artists likely past their primes for a surefire television ratings bonanza.
Ortiz and Sonnen are two of the biggest names in MMA history, but both came off significant layoffs. The 39-year-old Sonnen hadn’t fought since September 2013 after leaving the UFC under suspension in the wake of a failed drug test.
“The speed is different when you’re sparring as opposed to going live, and that’s just a reality,” Sonnen said. “I thought I could beat Tito. I had good positions on him, and he had good positions on me, and it was a fair fight.”
Sonnen and Ortiz have a two-decade history. Sonnen pinned Ortiz in a college wrestling match, but Ortiz rose swiftly in MMA while Sonnen toiled for years in minor-league shows before honing his promotional voice and MMA skills.
Ortiz was a pillar of MMA’s rise to prominence early in the 21st century, and the flamboyant, malapropism-prone brawler cemented his place in history with memorable bouts against Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell and Ken Shamrock. Ortiz held the UFC 205-pound title from 1999-2003, and he has reigned as one of MMA’s most popular fighters ever since.
But Ortiz’s career waned over the past decade, and he had won just one of his previous nine fights when he angrily left the UFC in 2013, claiming the promotion had disrespected him. He won his first two Bellator bouts, but hadn’t fought since losing a light heavyweight title shot to Liam McGeary 16 months ago.
“All the surgeries I’ve had, and people ask me why I’m retiring,” Ortiz said. “I’m sick of having surgery. I’ve gone through the grinder. I could have quit, but I wanted to do it the right way.”
Sonnen used his formidable wrestling skills and even more impressive promotional skills to rise to the top of the UFC, losing three title shots in two weight classes and becoming one of his sport’s best television draws from 2009-13.
Sonnen walked away after his second failed drug test, increasing his broadcasting work and taking a spot on the new season of “The Celebrity Apprentice.” After his suspension expired, Sonnen announced he was never serious about retirement — but he surprised the MMA world by signing with Bellator instead of returning to the UFC.
In the co-main event, English welterweight veteran Paul Daley (39-14-2) knocked out Brennan Ward with a spectacular flying knee in the first round, bringing the Forum crowd to its feet in shock.
Ward (15-5) appeared to be out cold after leaning into the right knee, and he was removed from the cage on a stretcher while wearing a neck brace. Ward raised both arms and waved while being taken away.