Forrest Griffin stood in the middle of the Octagon a beaten man. At least he was according to the scorecards of two out of three judges who watched his UFC 59 co-main event battle with Tito Ortiz from ringside.
The crowd in attendance at Anaheim's Arrowhead Pond, however, saw things differently. Griffin had survived a steady diet of ground and pound elbows from Ortiz in the first round only to come back and control the second and much of the third with an aggressive standup attack. As far as the fans in the building were concerned, Griffin's unexpected rally in the later rounds was enough win the fight for the scrappy underdog.
Griffin also seemed to believe he had it in the bag. Before the decision was announced he looked like he had the energy of a downed power line crackling through his veins as he paraded around the ring in celebration and, riding a massive adrenaline rush, yelled, "I could go five more rounds! Fuck yeah!"
Before the words were even out of his mouth the crowed erupted in cheers.
That's when things got truly wild. A crazed Griffin began repeatedly falling to the ground and demonstrating his sprawl with a frenzy that brought to mind the old Ric Flair gimmick of dropping a series of elbows on his suit jacket in a show of disdain for his opponent's skills. At that point if Griffin had decided to run for mayor of Anaheim, he would have had the vote of everyone in the arena.
So naturally when these people saw referee John McCarthy raise Ortiz's hand in victory they expressed their outrage by pelting the Octagon with a hailstorm of boos. The bass-voiced precipitation didn't let up when Ortiz did an in-cage interview with color commentator Joe Rogan.
For his part Griffin seemed at peace with the result, despite his jubilation just minutes before.
"I never said I was that good," a fired up Griffin told Rogan. "But there’s nobody in this sport at 205 you put me in with and I won’t make it a fight. That’s just the way I am. I’m just a dog. I fight. Period."
Upon hearing those words the fans in the arena let out a pop that sounded like 13,814 bottles of champagne being opened simultaneously. Griffin may not have received his winner's purse that night, but he gained something worth a lot more in the long run: he cemented a bond with fans that would buoy him up near the top of the card for the rest of his career.
His performance against the former champion Ortiz showed Griffin could breathe the rarefied air near the top of the UFC's light heavyweight division without choking. Even more importantly, Griffin's spirited promo after the fight assured fans they could count on him to do his damnedest to live up to those oft-repeated cliches about "leaving it all in the Octagon" and "making the fight a war."
At the time few believed he was the type of fighter who would ever capture a world title, but on that night back in April of 2006 Forrest Griffin cemented his status as the UFC's unofficial people's champ.
UFC fans were introduced to Griffin a little over a year earlier on January 17, 2005 when he appeared as a contestant on the groundbreaking debut episode of The Ultimate Fighter reality series. When we say "UFC fans" here it's important to define our terms. Only a small percentage of the TUF audience was made up of hardcore fanatics who supported the promotion during the lean years when Zuffa was hemorrhaging money like a bull unfortunate enough to find itself on the losing end of a protracted battle with a matador.
Coming into 2005, the Zuffa-owned UFC had only topped 100,000 pay per view buys twice: for Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock at UFC 40 and Ortiz vs. Chuck Liddell at UFC 47. Those shows were highly successful aberrations per the standards of the time. According to an estimate obtained from Dave Meltzer, the average UFC PPV was doing in the 25,000 to 40,000 buy range with the exception of a handful of shows that netted between 48,000 to 75,000 buys (Ortiz vs. Vladimir Matyushenko at UFC 33 did 75,000, Randy Couture vs. Liddell at UFC 43 did 48,000, and Ortiz vs. Couture at UFC 44 did 75,000 buys respectively).
When you consider the above numbers in light of the 1.42 million who tuned into the first episode of TUF, it begs the question where 1.3 million or so new UFC viewers came from?
As hard as it may be for some purists to accept even all these years later, the answer is they were by and large WWE fans who stayed tuned for TUF following its lead in, WWE's flagship program Monday Night Raw.
The reality show was a great fit for wrestling fans, especially those who had grown jaded with WWE's then-stale product. In contrast to WWE's infamous glass ceiling, here was a conflict-based program where deserving competitors were actually able to advance their careers.
TUF really took off in week five when Chris Leben, Bobby Southworth, and Josh Koshcheck turned in the best pro-wrestling angle in years. During a night of heavy drinking, Southworth called Leben a "fatherless bastard" and later teamed up with Koscheck to douse a sleeping Leben with water from a garden hose. The story was simple yet easy to get emotionally invested in, which was something you couldn't say for many WWE storylines at the time. TUF proved to a generation of wrestling fans that the buildup to shoot fights could be just as exciting as anything a booker could script.
Many of the fighters involved in the first season of TUF made for memorable characters straight out of pro wrestling. There was the anti-hero Leben, the strong babyface Nate "the Rock" Quarry, jobbers like Jason "Strange Brew" Thacker, the unintentionally hilarious on interviews yet frightening in the cage Diego Sanchez, and smarmy heels such as Koscheck, Southworth, and the now largely forgotten Sam Hoger.
And then there was Griffin. If any moment on the show best summed up the character he presented to the world, it may have been the scene where, in reaction to going stir-crazy waiting for his first fight, he shaved his head and began doing his best impression of a displaying gorilla. Griffin was an acid-tongued goofball who became an animal when it came to all things fighting.
Case in point: the fight. You know the one I'm talking about. How could you not, considering the legendary status it's taken on over the years? At this point Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar is as much a sacrosanct part of the UFC's company lore as the Battle of Gettysburg is to the history of the United States. Dana White is fond of recalling how he and Spike TV executives went out in an alleyway behind the Cox Pavilion and signed a multi-year contract after the fight, but announcer Mike Goldberg was already plugging a second season of TUF -- which had performed well in the ratings over the course of its twelve week run -- during the broadcast while Griffin and Bonnar were still warming up backstage.
Whatever extent Griffin/Bonnar may have been responsible for convincing Spike TV executives to get behind the UFC, it was clearly instrumental in setting the stage for the boom period the UFC experienced between 2005 and 2010. In retrospect it seems like a bit of serendipity bordering on destiny that the new UFC audience's first taste of live fights just so happened to feature perhaps the most thrilling brawl in company history in the co-main event slot. Of the 1.9 million viewers who tuned into the finale, only 1/18th of them were hardcore UFC fans. The rest were likely new fans watching their first live fight card.
Many of them loved what they saw and subsequently became hardcore fans themselves. The UFC's next PPV offering, featuring the light heavyweight title rematch between TUF coaches Liddell and Couture, did a then-staggering 280,000 buys. That record was shattered a year later when the rubber match between the two did 400,000 buys. Then the UFC topped that number when they hit 425,000 buys for UFC 59. The draw for that show? Griffin taking on former champ Ortiz in the co-main event.
Thanks to his innate charisma and his role in the instant classic slugfest with Bonnar, the pro wrestling fans who gave the UFC its initial broadcast cable audience saw Griffin as their guy after the TUF finale. It wasn't long before the non-wrestling fans who flocked to the sport as it gained momentum also began to gravitate towards him. As a result he became the first UFC superstar to make his name in the Spike TV era.
2005 and 2006 were life-changing years for Griffin -- and game-changers for the UFC -- but there were even better days in store.
Griffin followed up the Ortiz fight with a co-main event victory over Bonnar at UFC 62 in a rematch of their already legendary TUF battle. Although the fight failed to live up the lofty standards set by their first meeting, it was part of an equation that led to huge box office success. Together with the main event of Chuck Liddell vs. Rentaro "Babalu" Sobral, Griffin/Bonnar II helped UFC 62 reach 500,000 buys. This from a company that just two years earlier was on the verge of being dropped by the Fertitta brothers like a bad, money losing habit.
Four months later in December of 2006 Griffin would again serve co-main event duties on a card that destroyed all previous records when he fought TUF season 2 competitor Kieth Jardine on the Liddell/Ortiz headlined UFC 66. The show did an unprecedented 1,050,000 buys and announced to the world the UFC was a PPV force to be reckoned with.
Unfortunately for Griffin, that record setting audience saw the people's champ momentarily tumble off his throne and come crashing down to earth.
For the majority of the first round Griffin out landed Jardine thanks to a more technical boxing game and a liberal dose of leg kicks. All that changed in the closing seconds of the round when Jardine caught Griffin coming in with a left hook to the jaw. This wobbled Griffin, allowing Jardine to swarm him with hard shots until referee McCarthy stepped in and called an end to the bout with just 19 seconds left in the round.
The underdog Jardine was as ecstatic as you'd expect after the win. Griffin, however, was beyond devastated. He collapsed on his knees like an abandoned building imploded by a demolition crew. The anguish on his face was unmistakable as the camera caught him sitting against the side of the cage sobbing uncontrollably, tears streaming down his cheeks.
It was a stark contrast from the gritty promo Griffin cut months earlier where he called himself a "dog" and told Rogan he would bring the fight to any light heavyweight in the world. This time when Rogan attempted to interview Griffin he got a much different reply.
"Keith came in and he did exactly what I wanted to do," an uncharacteristically taciturn Griffin explained to Rogan. "He knocked me the fuck out. Let's go home."
With that Griffin abruptly cut the interview short and walked out of the Octagon under a shower of boos from a crowd that had cheered him like a returning war hero just minutes earlier. He looked less like the tenacious doberman he had built a reputation for being inside the cage and more like a humiliated dog slinking away with his tail between his legs.
It was undoubtedly the low point of Griffin's career up until that point, but less than a year later he would be riding higher than ever.
Before things could get better, they got a little worse. Griffin was forced to pull out of a scheduled UFC 70 bout with Lyoto Machida due to staph infection. While nobody wants to do deal with staph, this may have been a blessing in disguise since at the time Machida was an undefeated, largely under the radar fighter whose unique style was a puzzle nobody would successfully solve for another three years.
Instead Griffin drew journeyman Hector Ramirez at UFC 72. Griffin put on a striking clinic in the second and third rounds and sent Ramirez packing out of the UFC. Although Griffin still showed the aggression that had become his trademark, he fought a smarter, more technical fight. He did a better job cutting angles and staying out of reach of Ramirez's shots, rather than charging into the pocket and trading bombs. Griffin still fought like a dog, but now he looked like one who had learned a few new tricks.
He would need them in his next fight. After easily dispatching of Ramirez, Griffin's next assignment was welcoming 2005 Pride Middleweight Grand Prix champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua to the UFC. By 2007 when he faced Griffin, Shogun was already a legend of the sport thanks to a portfolio bursting at the seams with exceedingly violent knockouts and TKOs. It wasn't a surprise when Shogun entered the fight the heavy favorite. Griffin may have been a big name in the UFC, but star power wasn't going to help him against a killer like Shogun.
As it turned out, Griffin didn't need it to. He outworked Rua in the first round and managed to take the former Pride star out of his game almost from the opening bell: Shogun wasn't able to land much of anything standing and when he took Griffin down he found his offensive efforts largely shut down by Griffin's guard. As a result he didn't land much more than a few elbows before Griffin found his way back to his feet. Once there Griffin was able to pick his shots against Shogun. When Rua returned to his corner, his forehead was marred by a large welt.
Griffin turned it up in the second but Shogun was fading at an exponential rate. Near the end of the round a visibly gassed Shogun's hands were down as Griffin peppered him with punches and leg kicks. To Shogun's credit he was able to open a deep cut on Griffin's forehead with an elbow thrown from the guard early, but other than that it was clearly Griffin's round.
Rua started the third by charging at Griffin and pinning him up against the cage en route to completing a rather sloppy takedown. He would spend the next minute and a half in Griffin's guard peppering him with elbows. It looked like Shogun was on his way to taking the round, and depending on how the judges scored the first, stealing the decision. Then with 3:05 remaining in the round Griffin swept Rua with an omoplata and in the ensuing scramble ended up in half guard. From here he began reigning down punches on an utterly spent Shogun. Given his dominant performance in the second, Griffin could have rode the position out and felt assured he'd walk away with the victory. Instead, he kept battering Rua, causing Shogun to turn and give up his back. From there, Griffin got his hooks in, flattened his opponent out, and submitted Shogun via rear naked choke with just 15 seconds remaining on the clock.
As soon as referee Steve Mazzagatti signaled the end of the fight, Griffin shot up like a firecracker and ran across the cage with his arms held above his head as a sign of victory. It was a celebration that would be replayed on video packages for the rest of his career
Once again Griffin was overcome with emotion after a fight, but this time he was yelling in jubilant triumph.
The win over Shogun earned Griffin a spot on the seventh season of The Ultimate Fighter, this time as a coach. Three years earlier he had been just another contestant on the show hoping to earn a spot in the UFC; now he was sharing equal billing with opposing coach and current UFC light heavyweight champ Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. Even better, the coaching gig was to serve as a lead in to a title match between the two scheduled for July 5, 2008.
That night in the Mandalay Events Center, Griffin walked to the Octagon paying the familiar underdog role. Jackson captured the belt in May of 2007 after knocking out the once feared Chuck Liddell and had defended it against former Pride champ Dan Henderson later that year. In contrast, all Griffin had going for him was a reputation for being "a dog" and his upset win over Rua. The widespread perception was Griffin would likely put up a game fight, but Jackson would ultimately prove to be on another level.
The first round round largely bore this theory out. Griffin did a good job managing distance, but wasn't landing much outside of some leg kicks. Rampage caught Griffin with a stiff left hook to the temple which momentarily upset the challenger's equilibrium. Before long Griffin was charging forward in an attempt to return the favor. He threw more leg kicks, one of which cased Rampage's left knee to buckle. When Griffin attempted to move in and land more shots on Rampage, he was met with a brutal right uppercut. The blow knocked Griffin to the mat, but he was able to hold Rampage in his guard and keep from getting finished.
Griffin went for another leg kick to start the second and Jackson was knocked off balance. Rampage attempted a takedown when the challenger followed up with a series of kicks to his heavily battered legs, but Griffin was able to turn this into a standing guillotine attempt and transition into a takedown of his own. From there, Griffin methodically advanced position from half guard, to side control, to full mount while landing solid shots on a surprisingly passive Rampage. Although Griffin never came close to finishing, the complete domination he showed was enough to earn him a 10-8 on two of the judge's scorecards.
The third was a less exciting round than the first two, but Griffin proved the more effective fighter. Then in the fourth Rampage had his best round of the fight, securing a 10-9 on all three judges' scorecards thanks to spending the majority of the round in top position on Griffin after dropping him early with a punishing hook. Griffin had his moments though: he attempted an omoplata and threw up a tight triangle Rampage was forced to slam his way out of. Griffin did a good job controlling the distance in the fifth, and continued to light Jackson's leg up with kicks.
When the horn sounded signaling the end of the fight there was some suspense as to how the notoriously unreliable judges would score the bout, but Griffin was clearly the fresher fighter at the end of five rounds. A weary Rampage returned to his corner and rested on his stool while Griffin paraded around the Octagon waving his arms in the air in an attempt to rile up the already jacked crowd.
As Griffin stood with referee Yves Levigne and Rampage in the middle of the Octagon awaiting the judges' decision, he looked as tense as a father to be pacing the halls of the maternity ward. When announcer Bruce Buffer drew out the suspense before reading the verdict, a momentarily disappointed Griffin jerked his had away from Lavigne and began to walk away.
A split second later the perennial underdog had his hand raised in victory as he was announced the new UFC light heavyweight champion.
When the audience heard the decision they rose to their feet and let out a celebratory cheer that must have put the noise generated by the previous night's Fourth of July fireworks display to shame.
"I've already cried in the Octagon once, so I'm not gonna do that shit again," an emotional Griffin said after snatching the mic away before Rogan could ask his first question during the post fight interview. "I want to thank you guys so much...I appreciate you guys coming out so much. This is the best moment of my life. I can't wait to do this shit again, brother."
It was a perfect sports moment: a beloved underdog overcoming long odds and winning the big one in front of a group of rabid, partisan fans. Griffin had always been popular, but the win over Jackson proved he deserved to be a superstar based on the merit of his talent, not just his remarkable connection with the fans. Now he wasn't just the people's champ, he was the champ.
Unbeknownst to Griffin at the time, the wave of momentum he rode from the landmark Bonnar fight all the way to the world title had just crested. The darkest days of his career were right around the corner.
Read part two of this article here.
This piece originally appeared on WrestlingObserver.com on 6/1/13. Watch for Part II of this article coming early next week.