Friday, July 6, 2007 | 6:57 a.m.
He's not fighting in either of the card's title bouts, but as perhaps the flashiest performer in mixed martial arts , Tito Ortiz is receiving star billing in Saturday's big Ultimate Fighting Championship show in Sacramento.
Ortiz returns to the octagon for the first time since losing to Chuck Liddell on New Year's weekend at the MGM Grand when he takes on Rashad Evans in a light heavyweight fight.
For Ortiz, a former UFC light heavyweight champion, the fight is shaping up as his most competitive and evenly matched in his past five outings - at least from a betting angle.
The fight is essentially a pick 'em in Las Vegas sports books, with Ortiz listed at minus-110 (risk $1.10 to win $1) at Caesars Palace and all related Harrah's properties and minus-120 at the Venetian. (As always, odds can and often do change by the minute.)
Those odds represent a marked difference from Ortiz's previous four fights, in which either the "Huntington Beach Bad Boy" (three times) or his opponent (once) was a decided betting favorite.
Liddell was better than a 2-1 favorite when he stopped Ortiz in the third round of December's light heavyweight title fight.
Before that, Ortiz was a heavy favorite in each of his two first-round victories against Ken Shamrock, a UFC Hall of Famer who was past his prime by the time Ortiz got to him last year. Ortiz was a 5-1 favorite in their first meeting and at least 8-1 in the rematch.
Ortiz was favored at odds of 3-1 or better when he won a decision against Forrest Griffin in April 2006. To find the last time Ortiz entered the octagon at pick 'em, you have to go back to February 2005 , when he beat Vitor Belfort in a three-round split decision in a headliner at Mandalay Bay.
In preparation for his fight against Evans on Saturday's UFC 73 card at the ARCO Arena (pay-per-view, $39.95), Ortiz has been up to his typical antics, trying to engage Evans in a battle of trash talk (if not wits).
Previously, Ortiz has even antagonized UFC President Dana White, although White said their personality differences have not interfered with the promotion of Ortiz's fights.
"It's one of those things where Tito and I don't ever see eye to eye," White said on a conference call. "We've been fighting for a long time with each other. But at the end of the day it's business ...
"Tito is a good fighter. He comes in to fight. He does his promotions. Tito does his job and I do mine , and it works out for everybody."
In Saturday's title fights, Anderson Silva (minus-180) takes on Nate Marquardt (oh, excuse me, Nate "the Great" Marquardt) for the middleweight championship and Sean Sherk (minus-360) meets Hermes Franca for the lightweight championship.
Silva was better than a 4-1 favorite in his most recent fight, a victory by submission against Travis Lutter, and was a plus-150 underdog in his previous bout, a technical knockout of Rich Franklin.
Sherk was a 3-1 favorite when he beat Kenny Florian for the belt last time out, and a minus-160 choice in his previous fight against Nick Diaz. He lost to Georges St. Pierre as a small underdog of plus-105 in November 2005.
Hyping Ortiz as opposed to the two title matches was just another example of the UFC's vaunted marketing acumen, White said.
"It depends on the market," he said. "We did billboards with Tito and Rashad, and in other markets we did them with Sean and Hermes and others with Anderson and Nate. But obviously, Tito Ortiz is a very popular fighter. In some of the markets where a lot of people know Tito, him and Rashad would have been on the billboards as opposed to one of the title fights.
"We're very tricky guys. We know how to market this."
Bodog, the Costa Rica-based gambling and entertainment operation, will conduct an open casting call from noon to 5 p.m. today through Sunday at Planet Hollywood for "Calvin Ayre Wild Card Poker II," a poker reality show in which 12 amateur players live together in a mansion and compete in a variety of events.
The show's grand prize will be worth $2 million, according to Bodog. Filming is to begin in the fall. Players of all skill levels are welcome at the auditions, which will take place in the hotel's Sapphire 2 meeting room. No reservations are required, but players must be 21.