Forrest Griffin: The perfect storm produces UFC stardom
I really like Forrest Griffin. I like the way he fights, and having had the chance to speak with him on a couple occasions in the past, I love how candid and unfiltered he can be in conversation.
His placement and subsequent success on the initial season of The Ultimate Fighter made him into an instant fan favourite and recognisable name as the UFC started taking steps towards becoming the dominant MMA entity they are today.
Fans connected with the charismatic Georgia native for the same reasons I have, and he quickly became someone the UFC could push as a main event attraction.
And Griffin made the most of his opportunities too, earning a surprising submission win over Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at UFC 76 to propel himself into a title bout – and TUF coaching appointment – opposite Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.
Less than two years after he fled the cage in tears following a first-round loss to Keith Jardine, Griffin offered a palms-to-the-sky shrug of the shoulders as if to say, “I can’t tell you how this happened” as UFC President Dana White wrapped the light heavyweight title around his waste following his narrow victory over Jackson at UFC 86.
He dropped the belt to Rashad Evans in his first title defence five months later, and has gone just 2-3 since edging out “Rampage” for the title in July 2008, but his popularity and placement near the top of every card he fights on has never wavered.
A sure-fire inductee into the UFC Hall of Fame for being one half of the fight that helped change the fortunes of the company, and being a one of the biggest homegrown stars the organisation has ever produced, Griffin stands out to me as a shining example of how powerful the UFC promotional machine can be, and how a perfect storm of circumstances can carry a solid-but-unspectacular fighter to great heights both inside and outside of the cage.
Before anyone thinks of leaving a comment suggesting I’m fighter bashing or questioning me for diminishing the success of a fighter from behind a keyboard and monitor, just chill out; that’s not what this is about.
For starters, I love guys who grind out lengthy careers taking tough fights over and over again.
Secondly, I’m not knocking Griffin’s success or stardom; I’m just trying to show that when the stars align and the UFC gives a guy a push, big things can happen.
Griffin will be the first to tell you that he’s not the most talented guy in the sport. He’s not the most talented guy in the division, but at one point in time, he was recognised – and deservingly so – as the top light heavyweight in MMA. But here’s the thing: only Forrest Griffin could have gotten there the way he did.
Very few fighters – light heavyweights or otherwise – would be given the opportunity to face an incoming star like “Shogun” Rua fresh off a decision win over Hector Ramirez, especially not when they had lost two of three before that, but Griffin’s name value made him the right man to pair opposite the UFC’s new arrival from Pride.
In essence, Griffin was to be the recognisable name that drew fans to the fight, where they would see what all the ruckus about this “Shogun” guy was about, but it didn’t play out that way.
Griffin controlled the out of shape and injured Rua throughout the contest, sinking in a rear naked choke late in the third round to earn the victory, and propel himself into a title bout with Jackson.
Their grandiose personalities made them a perfect tandem to coach on The Ultimate Fighter, and only further heightened the interest in both the fight and the fighters. Again, that’s not something that has been afforded to everyone; only certain guys get the opportunity to coach on TUF and reap the benefits of the added exposure.
You may want to argue that TUF isn’t that influential or powerful of a marketing tool any more, but I bet you that far more people know who Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber are now following their stint on Season 15 than did prior to their run as coaches on the reality TV staple.
Once the show wrapped, Griffin made the most of his opportunity in the cage, capturing the light heavyweight title from Jackson in a fight that garnered a great deal of debate, and earned Fight of the Year honors from a number of outlets.
His success and stardom in the cage has led to a pair of best-selling books, and although he’s on the downside of his career, people still clamour to see him step into the cage, as he’ll do this weekend when he faces Tito Ortiz for a third time.
Through the highs (winning the light heavyweight title) and lows (getting embarrassed by Anderson Silva), Griffin’s popularity has remained intact, a feat that is impressive considering the fickle nature of some fight fans. It’s endured in part because Griffin has a “We could be best friends, goofy next door neighbour” appeal to him, but it’s also because the stars aligned for the 33-year-old Las Vegas resident.
Everything tracks back to his first fight with Stephan Bonnar on the original Ultimate Fighter Finale.
If he doesn’t win that fight, he doesn’t get the initial push he received from the UFC, doesn’t become the bankable, reliable name you can roll out against Rua at UFC 76 or the pleasant surprise title contender who can carry one of the worst seasons in Ultimate Fighter history. He probably never challenges for the light heavyweight title, never mind winning it.
It’s an impressive and intriguing chain of events situation, and one that shows, to me, that when the UFC wants to make a guy a star, they most certainly can.
Don’t get me wrong: Griffin did some heavy lifting along the way, winning fights and attracting an audience, but if not for the UFC’s push, would his career be all that different from that of the man he’ll forever be linked with, Stephan Bonnar?
I say no. What do you say? Let me know in the comments section.
Follow The Roar’s UFC Expert E. Spencer Kyte on Twitter (@spencerkyte).