Over the years there have been some incredible rivalries inside the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but arguably the one that kick-started it all was the heated feud between Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock.
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This epic rivalry started in May 1997 and did not let up until the latter finally admitted defeat in October 2006, so what better way to kick-start our look through the greatest rivalries in UFC history then to look back at the time ‘The Huntington Beach Bad Boy’ entered ‘The Lion’s Den’ and took on ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Man’.
The roots of this massive rivalry date all the way back to UFC 13 on May 30, 1997 – the night a 22-year-old Tito Ortiz made his debut inside the Octagon. Ortiz took on Guy Mezger in the lightweight tournament final, having successfully won an alternate bout earlier in the night, and although few expected him to get the better of his more experienced opponent, he made an excellent start to the bout, getting better of the stand-up exchanges, stuffing a takedown attempt and landing a couple of knees that cut open Mezger. However, referee John McCarthy ordered the two fighters to separate in order to have the cuts inspected by the doctor and when the bout resumed Ortiz made a rookie move that cost him, gifting Mezger a guillotine choke while he attempted a double-leg takedown.
Ortiz did not fight again in the UFC until almost two years later, but when he made his return he made sure that ‘The Lion’s Den’ felt it. By January 1999 professional wrestling was the hottest thing on the planet, with ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin the man leading the charge, and it had not gone unnoticed by Ortiz – a big professional wrestling fan. Austin’s “Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass” catchphrase had become a pop culture phenomenon and a massive merchandise mover in the world of t-shirts, and it also became the inspiration for ‘The Huntingdon Beach Bad Boy’s’ post-match celebration at UFC 18. Having stopped ‘Lion’s Den’ member Jerry Bohlander with strikes, Ortiz pulled out an “Extreme Associates 3:16, I just f**ked your ass” t-shirt and imitated shooting guns at Bohlander’s corner. Nothing boiled over that night, but it did a couple of months later.
Ortiz had waited a long time for the chance to avenge that disappointing submission defeat to Mezger at UFC 13, but he was presented with an opportunity when Vitor Belfort withdrew from a scheduled fight with Mezger at UFC 19, and Ortiz took it. It was a night that no long-time MMA fan will ever forget. Ortiz beat on Mezger until referee John McCarthy showed mercy and then celebrate by firing off those imaginary pistols at ‘The Lion’s Den’ once again. He was not done there though. He flipped off Ken Shamrock and the rest of the team before pulling out another shirt – this one read “Gay Mezger is my bitch”. Shamrock climbed up on the cage to confront the cocky youngster after the fight, but it was backstage where tensions really erupted with reports claiming that the police had to be called in to keep the Shamrock’s team and Ortiz’s camp. The possibility of the two men settling their differences in the Octagon had fight fans salivating, but there was one massive problem. Shamrock had crossed over into the word of professional wrestling at this time and the size difference between the two men was huge, so at this time Ortiz v Shamrock was merely the topic of ‘Fantasy Warfare’.
Ortiz ended the year by submitting to strikes when he challenged Shamrock’s brother, Frank, in a light-heavyweight title fight, and it would be almost three years before he shared the Octagon with a member of the Shamrock family.
By 2002 Shamrock was out of the WWE and although he was still involved in professional wrestling, the former UFC superfight champion was back involved in mixed martial arts. Having gone 1-2 while fighting over in PRIDE Fighting Championships in Japan, Shamrock returned to the American scene in late 2002 and he did it in blockbuster fashion by finally putting pen-to-paper on a fight agreement that would see him and Ortiz settle their differences in the Octagon once and for all.
Not only was it a huge night for the pair, it was a massive night for the sport of mixed martial arts. The UFC was on the brink of going under prior to this fight, but UFC 40: Vendetta on November 22, 2002 sold out the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas – the first Vegas sell-out in UFC history – and the company smashed its pay-per-view record almost three times over. Mainstream media were all over the fight as their appearance on ‘The Best Damn Sports Show Period’ grabbed the headlines, and all that was left was for the two men to deliver a fight for the ages. Many expected it to be a close affair – it was not.
Shamrock rocked Ortiz early on, but ‘The Huntington Beach Bad Boy’ recovered and went on to dominate the fight, brutalising Shamrock’s face until he was almost unrecognisable before the veteran fighter’s team finally threw in the towel after the third round. Shamrock attempted to bury the hatchet post-fight and having initially shrugged off those attempts, Ortiz quickly removed his latest t-shirt aiming a shot at ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Man’ and the two men embraced.
It’s Not Over Until It’s Over
The truce did not last long though, and the rivalry would soon heat up again as Shamrock blamed his poor performance on a knee injury and pestered UFC president Dana White for the opportunity to meet Ortiz for a second time. Ortiz was also keen on a rematch, and he made his intentions clear when he gatecrashed a press conference following Shamrock’s win over Kimo Leopoldo at UFC 48 on June 19, 2004.
The two men continued to trade verbal jabs as demand for the rematch reached an all-time high, and when he could no longer ignore the calls White gave Ortiz-Shamrock 2 the green light. The two men would meet on the undercard of a heavyweight title fight at UFC 61: Bitter Rivals on July 8, 2006. The event smashed MMA records in terms of both PPV numbers and the gate itself, but the fight itself left a sour taste in the mouths of those who paid to see it. A confident Shamrock was the early aggressor as he backed his rival up against the cage, but Ortiz responded by picking him up and slamming him to the mat, and from there he unloaded with a flurry of elbows that led to referee Herb Dean stopping the contest. Shamrock was not the only one who felt that the stoppage was premature and the two fighters had to be kept apart by security as Ortiz taunted his rival and tempers flared.
The rivalry was far from over and due to the controversial nature of the finish, UFC president Dana White swiftly set up a trilogy fight between the pair that would take place at a special event named ‘The Final Chapter’. Before that though the pair had to coach separate teams on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ television show, and as the series unfolded the two men repeatedly butted heads to fuel anticipation for a rivalry-defining fight that would garner record-setting television numbers for the UFC as its popularity began to sky-rocket. Now all that was left was for the fight to deliver a satisfactory result, and it did. Ortiz manhandled Shamrock, took him down, dominated him with ground n’ pound and this time nobody could complain with John McCarthy’s decision to call it off. Shamrock certainly could not and afterwards buried the hatchet with Ortiz, saying that their feud was always “just business”. It certainly was and at a time when the UFC needed it, their long rivalry was big business.