Bellator 170: Tito Ortiz vs. Chael Sonnen Toe to Toe Preview – A Complete Breakdown

Tito and Chael finish whatever bizarre feud Bellator brewed up by accident this January 21, 2017 at the The Forum in Inglewood, California. One…

By: David Castillo | 6 years ago
Bellator 170: Tito Ortiz vs. Chael Sonnen Toe to Toe Preview – A Complete Breakdown
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Tito and Chael finish whatever bizarre feud Bellator brewed up by accident this January 21, 2017 at the The Forum in Inglewood, California.

One sentence summary:

David: A huge lion with a big giant *mane* named Tito rumbles in the jungle with the money laundering hyena (or is it the jackal?).

Phil: Tell me what you see where you see who will be the greatest pro wrestling-style heel, on the night? *crushes juicebox*


Record: Tito Ortiz 18-12-1 Chael Sonnen 29-14-1

Odds: Tito Ortiz +175 Chael Sonnen -190

History / Introduction to both fighters

David: After a brief run of success, beating Alexander Shlemenko and Stephen Bonnar (star of Supreme Champion) in Bellator, Tito Ortiz returns to the cage after being interrupted by Liam McGeary who took him out with a triangle choke. Tito will always be appreciated for the way UFC 40 became a seminal event in North American MMA: a turning point in the sport, where the discussions took place away from the dank corners of Sherdog’s forums. I don’t think people talk about UFC 40 enough, instead opting for the easy mark, the first Ultimate Fighter, which was only financially viable in the first place because of the success UFC 40 was building off of.

Anyway, I say that to say this: I can’t hate Tito. He’s a welcome presence of accidental eccentricity in a sea of mean mugging meatheads. And to be fair, this is a reasonable fight for Ortiz. This isn’t Kimbo vs. Shamrock, where all we can do is hide our contempt with Jurassic World jokes. Still, you have to wonder just where all of this is headed. Ortiz is not gonna make “another run”, so what’s the point? Even in the confines of a non UFC promotion, the prospect of success feels quaint. Tito doesn’t have the style to be nominally relevant, or even nominally dangerous. Maybe that’s why he’s fighting Chael though. The same could be said about his opponent.

Phil: Like you said, there’s that tendency to underplay just how pivotal he was in the early years. An unwillingness to credit his awkward and one-sided rivalries for generating interest contributed to the way the UFC struggled to find stars in its second stagnation period. For a long time, they looked at upcomers and tried to map them onto the Chuck or Randy template. Chris Weidman! Can this guy be the “New Chuck”? No. Johny Hendricks! Can this guy be the “New Chuck?” Also no. The brass (and more specifically Dana) missed the way that opponents were illuminated by Tito, because they thought he was a donk. Fans can unite behind relatively bland figures, but they only really appreciate the virtues of genericism when contrasted against someone who doesn’t possess them. Like Tito. Engagement is the thing.

Tito recognized at a visceral level how important it was to be a recognizable figure, how vital it was not to just beat people up but to make fans want to watch his fights. What he lacked in charisma and articulacy he made up for in pure enthusiasm, and there was never any doubt as to how much he was committing to his nonsense. In the end, I think he wanted to be an Ali or a Tyson or even a Hulk Hogan, but what he ended up being was more like a kind of comedy villain; the MMA equivalent of Ben Stiller’s character from Dodgeball. Still important!

David: Sonnen has always had this deadpan delivery (see his pre-fight interview before facing Renato Sobral at UFC 205), and kind of stuck-up confidence. But things didn’t blossom for him until he started raising his profile in 2009, eventually netting himself a bout with Anderson Silva. Now he’s the man known as Chael-El, or whatever kids these days are calling him. To be honest, I was never into his schtick. Why? Because of Starship Troopers. Let me explain…

Starship Troopers is praised in adult circles for being more than the sum of its sub-Melrose Place actors pitted in mortal combat against space bugs. Like all science fiction, it’s a commentary. In this case, a “sendup of right-wing militarism”, to quote The Atlantic. But what if we found out that Neil Patrick Harris and Denise Richards were denied food rations on set, took paycuts not on their behalf due to shady backroom deals, and weren’t allowed to make phone calls to their favorite second cousins? To the extent that commentary works in science fiction, it comes from the proportion of fantastical wit to solemn reality. Finding out that Chael was guilty of money laundering, and mortgage fraud casts a sinister shadow over his insults, and bombast. Suddenly it’s not about the authenticity of the performance, but the authenticity of the performer. MMA fans and media can laud what he does as theatre, but it’s hard to look past the curtain once you’ve seen the Oscar Diggs behind it.

Phil: Indeed. When it comes to pro-wrestling schtick, Chael is been infinitely more measured and considered than Tito, at least in part because it was something which came to him much later in his career. He’s also better at it by most metrics. He’s funnier, more articulate, responds quicker. In general he’s just slicker, and hence more artificial, and this is the general Chael problem. He is exceptionally good at mixing up being sincere with sounding like he’s sincere, and thus a bit difficult to nail down. His race-baiting in the run-up to the Anderson fight (“Pray to the demon effigy you prance and dance in front of with your piglet tribe of savages”) was either ameliorated or enhanced by the fact that he clearly didn’t mean it, depending on where you stand on these things. Is it more acceptable to be a racist, or to pretend to be one for money?

He’s a more complex figure than Tito. He has a life story laced with genuine tragedy, and it’s hard not to feel for a man who took the toughest fights he could and always fell short… but he’s also a charming pathological liar who also sells himself on just talking the facts. However, like Tito, Chael too is slightly underplayed in his significance these days. Regardless of what you think about Chael’s methods, Anderson didn’t sell PPVs until Sonnen came along.

What’s at stake?

Phil: The Bellator cage is divorced from what used to be reality, and I have no idea what the endgame for either of these guys is. Does the winner angle for a title shot? Phil Davis is someone that a Tito or a Chael would have close to zero chance against, but I can definitely see the benefits for most of the concerned parties in booking that fight.

David: If Chael has transformed into a power puncher, then what’s at stake is an alarmingly heightened mixture of metaphors and direct objects Ortiz has long since misunderstood. When it comes to insults, you can actually pinpoint the exact moment when his brain shortcircuits into a your mama’s so fat soundboard of default settings. Watching him tell that story about the lion is already an instant classic. You can’t convince me that he’s not talking about penis when he says/accents the word “mane”. Hold on, I got Tito on Skype. Wait…What’s that Tito? Oh. By mane, you meant pubic hair. Because they’re both hair, yea, I gotcha. Okay, thanks for clearing that up.

Where do they want it?

Phil: It isn’t going to be terribly exciting, is it? We’re talking two wrestlers, that like to wrestle a lot, who are probably going to wrestle. Like Bonnar-Ortiz, the fight is likely to flop in comparison to the buildup. That said, in a throwback throwdown, Sonnen is probably a bit further along the evolutionary curve. Better phase-shifting, much more effective footwork and basic boxing fundamentals. He’s a more effective chain wrestler than Ortiz, capable of doggedly chaining together doubles to outside trips to single legs.

Two marks against Sonnen. First is that while he was a good middleweight, Chael’s success was far more limited at 205. I feel like a sizable problem (heyy) was that he just got too big for his frame. He bloated with muscle after the first Silva fight, to the extent that I seriously doubt he was ever making 185 again after their second bout. The second is that Ortiz is (or was) more offensively potent than Sonnen.

David: Sonnen has decent fundamentals on the feet when he commits but his striking takes more of a survivalist approach à la Jake Shields than anything. His boxing is rigid enough, though, that when he attempts a spinning back elbow, he falls on his ass. Yair Rodriguez these men are not. But Chael knows how to keep his boxing contained within the framework of his wrestling. That duck and throw overhand left he likes suits him for when he’s prowling for the takedown. Still, he’s at home on the mat. He used to be a grappler in the vein of Ortiz himself, concentrating heavily on top control offense. But it wasn’t until he started insulting submission grappling itself that he became much more adept at passing guard, and threatening with his own variety of chokes and locks.

Phil: Tito’s an odd duck. He has a reputation for being a pure top position grinder, yet there are a surprisingly large amount of moments where he’s hurt his opponents or come close to finishing them with submissions, even if a lot of those moments have been lost in the mire of his career. Head kick on Evans? His flurry on Wanderlei? His triangle on Machida? Dropping Forrest multiple times? Most notably, of course, there’s the punch and sub of Bader. He’s a bit like Clay Guida in that way- offensively underrated in positions where he’s considered to be devoid of threats.

He still has a fair few problems though: if he was a better submission grappler and striker than he’s given credit for, then he’s probably a weaker wrestler. He was big and had an excellent strength and conditioning regimen in contrast to those around him in his early career, but as people caught up to him physically his technical flaws became more apparent outside of moments of opportunism.

David: Ortiz really benefited by being a specialist in his day, using his strength, and nominal acumen (which is a tad unfair: his bout with Randy Couture was a real grind, and fairly underrated as a five round test of endurance that seemed like a bad matchup only in retrospect) to force opponents into his preference for warfare. But even as fighters caught up to him, he was always just versatile enough to earn respect in the most unlikely places. Still, he’s been trapped in earmuff defense shoot for takedown amber for the last decade. He’ll absorb punches, trying to block most of them, shoot, and if he misses he’ll slowly accrue offense on the feet, preferring the lead left hook or overhand right to close distance. He’s 3-8-1 in his last 12, so it’s not a great strategy, but he won’t need a great strategy to beat Sonnen (and vice versa).

Insight from past fights?

Phil: A consistent factor in Tito’s career is that he hasn’t done well against other wrestlers. His best (or most consistent performance) in the matchup was likely when he drew with Evans, but he was dominated by Couture, dominated by Hamill, etc. The Bader fight goes against the grain, but was also over very quickly and was fairly fluky, to boot.

David: I agree, but we need to go all the way back to 2013 to find Chael looking like an absolute mess in his then-last bout. Rashad Evans scraped him off his bootheel, and worse yet, he slid through Sonnen’s guard with systematic ease. Not that Sonnen’s guard was ever encrypted data or anything, but the general concern is that he’s been withered for awhile.


Phil: Does Sonnen have any exploitable weaknesses for Tito to attack, ones which might have been missed by, uh, normal people, and can only be caught by Tito’s laser-focused scouting abilities? For example, Hamill’s “soft head, because he’s deaf” and lack of ekalibrium.

David: I never saw Hamill’s laugh until now. Their entire presence is a bit of an x-factor. Especially when you consider the sobering suspicion that Tito’s perpetual kaleidoscope of half baked metaphors is a sign of too many concussions and not cracked skulls. Not that Tito has to worry about punches in this bout, but you never know when a dude straight turns into Jonathan Goulet.


Phil: Sonnen’s been out for a while, but if he’s in shape there’s no reason to assume he shouldn’t win this. He’s more effective offensive wrestler and a better striker. Both men have (had) excellent chins and unless Sonnen throws a double leg into an Ortiz guillotine, the fight should go the (increasingly sweaty and torpid) time limit. Chael Sonnen by unanimous decision

David: I think the deciding x-factor for me is that Sonnen doesn’t have the kind of style to transition successfully against a heavier facsimile. It would be one thing if Sonnen was decent on the feet, but here his chances rely on outmuscling Tito, and given his extended time away from mortal combat..I just can’t pick him. Chance favors the impaired mind in this one. Tito Ortiz by Decision.

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David Castillo
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