Most sports fans with even a passing interest in mixed martial arts have probably heard of Tito Ortiz.
Only the most dedicated of the hardcore fight fans have the faintest notion of the name Alexander Shlemenko.
Yet Shlemenko is more than a 5-1 favorite over Ortiz tonight when they meet in Southaven, Miss., on Bellator Fighting Championships’ first pay-per-view card.
Ortiz, a former Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight champ, has not competed since July 2012. His UFC career ended after a 1-7-1 record in his final nine fights.
But Ortiz still has the name recognition he built as one of the biggest stars in the dominant organization’s formative years. That’s likely the biggest reason he’s on the card as Bellator enters the pay-per-view market.
It’s also why Shlemenko, Bellator’s middleweight champion who has a 13-fight winning streak, called out Ortiz for a light heavyweight bout on Bellator’s showcase event.
“Maybe he has no name recognition, and he wants to make a name off me,” Ortiz said during a media event Thursday. “He’s going to make a name off me for 15 minutes about how great he took punishment from me.
“He said he’s going to beat me. Yeah, he’s going to beat his face against my fists and my elbows.”
Ortiz, 39, showed he can still talk. Now comes time to prove he can still fight. Through the losing, he has battled a plethora of injuries and well-documented personal strife that included a high-profile breakup with ex-girlfriend Jenna Jameson, with whom he has twin boys.
He insists he is committed to fighting well beyond tonight. Ortiz will need to start winning again to be taken seriously.
“All those naysayers don’t fight for a living,” he said. “I don’t listen to the naysayers. I listen to the yay-sayers. All the people that have supported me and had my back through all the trials and tribulations I’ve been through physically, emotionally, relationship-wise, training-wise, fighting-wise. I’ve been from the bottom of hell to the top of heaven and back down. Now, I’m trying to work my way back to the top.”
Shlemenko, 29, could take a huge leap forward with a victory over Ortiz.
“I heard Tito was looking for a fight, so I thought, ‘Why not me?’ ” he said. “I’ve been following him for many years as a fighter. I’ve been a fan of his. I’ve watched almost all of his fights. It will be a good test of my abilities to see what I can do against an experienced fighter like Tito.”
The main event also features a former UFC champion trying to revitalize his career. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson has won his first two fights in Bellator, both by first-round knockout, but will take a step up in a headlining grudge match against Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal.
Jackson has cited the opportunity to fight Lawal as one of the main reasons for signing with Bellator when his UFC contract expired last year.
He’s also excited about fighting just outside his hometown of Memphis, Tenn. Jackson’s drawing power in the area was a major reason Bellator decided to hold the event there.
He had to take on an even bigger responsibility when his fight was bumped up to the main event after lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez suffered a concussion in training and had to pull out of the scheduled headliner against former champion Michael Chandler.
Chandler will instead fight Will Brooks for the interim belt on the pay-per-view card, which begins at 7 p.m.
The live portion of the preliminary card will air on Spike TV (Cable 29) at 5 p.m.
Contact reporter Adam Hill at email@example.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.