There will never be another UFC character like Forrest Griffin, largely because his popularity came from being in the right place at the right time in a situation and period that can never fully be duplicated.
Griffin was the star of the first live televised UFC show in history, which led to him becoming one of the most uniquely popular fighters in UFC history. He was the first star built from the ground up on Spike TV. From there, he became an unlikely champion. The announcement of his retirement at the age of 33, after UFC 160, was just a reminder of how long ago eight years is in the world of MMA.
It was April 9, 2005, at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas, when UFC's first-ever live television special aired on Spike TV. The main event was Ken Shamrock, UFC's biggest star of another generation, but 41 years old by that time and well past his prime, facing rising star Rich Franklin. Well, that was the advertised main event. When the night was over, everyone was talking about Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar. And they kept talking about it for several days. It is arguably still the most memorable fight, and some would argue, the most important fight in UFC history.
The live show was an experiment. UFC was highly controversial. It was one thing to air taped fights where you had a net if something went wrong. But a bad live show could have been devastating. Instead, it was the perfect fight on a pivotal night.
The idea that fight made UFC is somewhat overstated. Ratings for the first season of Ultimate Fighter were huge. On the air, before the fight even happened, the announcers were already plugging a second season of the reality show. UFC was going to make it to the level it ended up reaching either way. But for millions of viewers, it was the first great fight and the most memorable one that they ever saw.
The two went toe-to-toe for three rounds. It was an amazing display of heart and conditioning as neither would give an inch. Both threw bombs for three rounds, with nobody dropping or backing up. Griffin, in particular, was on the brink of exhaustion more than once. It's rare that a fight going the distance and having judges decide on a winner in a fight that could go either way would be considered a perfect ending. But on that night, it was. It was a fight where nobody in the audience wanted to see anyone drop, nobody wanted to see the fight end, and nobody wanted to see either man lose. Unlike most close fights, where the decision gets booed heavily, nobody would have booed no matter who got their hand raised.
Griffin was the winner, but Bonnar, in reality, was not the loser. Dana White came into the cage to announce Griffin as getting a six-figure contract with the UFC. Then, he announced that Bonnar was as well, something which at the time seemed a whole lot more emotional and significant when you didn't know that most of the cast on the show was going to wind up fighting in UFC.
"We think we're on to the next big emerging sport," said Spike TV Executive Vice President Kevin Kay, after the fight.
Bonnar, Chris Leben and Diego Sanchez all came off the reality show as instant stars, and Kenny Florian soon followed. Josh Koscheck was immediately one of the company's most hated fighters. But none compared to Griffin, who was a different kind of star than the company had ever had, or may ever have.
Griffin came across as a self-deprecating, funny prankster, a self-professed "B" level fighter, good at every skill, not great in any. People just liked him. They didn't think he was a world-beater, nor did they expect him to win every time out like most superstars. He wasn't a B.J. Penn, where early on, you expect to see the guy be a future world champion. He wasn't a knockout artist like Chuck Liddell, a rugged powerhouse like Matt Hughes, an athletic freak like Georges St-Pierre, or a physical monster like Brock Lesnar.
He was a guy people felt was a gutsy fighter who would give you non-stop action. In his 15 fights with the organization, going 10-5, he won five Fight of the Night bonuses and that doesn't include the first Bonnar fight since it was before such things were awarded. If you include the Bonnar match,and it would be a crime not to, that matches Frankie Edgar and Chris Lytle for the most in UFC history.
The Bonnar fight is generally considered the greatest fight in company history. He had a second fight of the year winner when he won the light-heavyweight title from Quinton "Rampage" Jackson in 2007.
Very quickly on the Ultimate Fighter, people got to know him and like him. He was the guy who broke his arm in a fight, didn't quit, and came back to win. He didn't have the money to fix it, so was left with a permanent lump on his left arm. He was a guy who fought for little money, slept on the couch of one of his trainers, and worked a regular job in the Sheriff's Department in Augusta, Ga. He garnered a reputation as one of the hardest workers in the sport, and improved before people's eyes from a guy lucky to be there to a world champion.
He was the Everyman working-class star, who beat guys stronger, faster and more talented because when the going got tough, he had something they didn't have.
"His heart, personality, and fighting style has helped mixed martial arts," said Dana White when announcing his retirement. "We are where we are, we had this great event with people packed and people went crazy, and he's one of the guys who has been one of the building blocks."
The perfect example of this was in his fourth UFC fight. It was only one year after his most famous fight, when he faced Tito Ortiz in UFC's first-ever event in the state of California, held at the Arrowhead Pond, now the Honda Center, in Anaheim, Calif.
At the time, Ortiz and Liddell were UFC's two biggest stars. Griffin was given a main event because of his popularity, but the idea at the time is he was a stepping stone for Ortiz to get an impressive win over, before bigger money fights with Ken Shamrock and Liddell.
Ortiz pretty well destroyed Griffin in the first round, leaving him covered in blood. But like a movie fight, Griffin saw his blood, and it revitalized him. He came back. The fight was in Ortiz's backyard, yet the crowd was solidly behind Griffin, who nearly pulled it off against a heavy favorite, losing a close split-decision.
The show did 425,000 buys on pay-per-view. At that time, it was the largest pay-per-view event in UFC history.
Usually when events set records, people know about it ahead of time. This was just considered a transition show to get to the big money fights later in the year. As that night showed, Griffin was not just popular, he was big box office, which he would prove several more times in his career.
Unlike almost any other fighter, when he lost, as he did to Ortiz, his popularity grew. When he lost a second time, via first-round knockout, to Keith Jardine, his popularity grew even more. Nobody expected him to be a champion, only that he'd fight his heart out. He was delivering the usual Griffin fight, got caught, and was put out.
Once, when the idea of a match with Liddell was being talked about, which at the time would match the two most popular fighters in the company, he said he'd give it everything he had until he got knocked out.
More than anyone, Griffin clearly understood his role. While he kept it quiet for nearly three months, he admitted he made the decision to retire in early March. It came right after watching the Brian Stann vs. Wanderlei Silva fight from Saitama, Japan, probably this year's closest equivalent to the first Griffin-Bonnar match.
"It was weird, I saw the Brian Stann vs. Wanderlei fight, I thought, if I don't have another of those in me, there's no point in continuing. I never really cared about winning or losing, then don't put the product out there at all if it's going to be subpar," Griffin said.
White had hinted at wanting Griffin to retire after his last fight, on July 7 in Las Vegas, where he won a close decision over Ortiz in what was Ortiz's farewell fight. Once the ultimate happy-go-lucky character, Griffin had gotten a reputation for being moody and unpredictable as the years went by. When the fight was over, he walked out of the cage before the results were even read, and had to be talked into going back in. Then he grabbed the mic from Joe Rogan, and interviewed Ortiz himself, in an attempt to be funny that didn't quite work. While Ortiz didn't make a scene in the cage, he was furious with the idea that Griffin had, unintentionally, ruined his big retirement moment.
Griffin wanted to continue, and was first scheduled against Chael Sonnen, and then Phil Davis, on the Dec. 29 show, but he blew out his knee a few weeks before the fight which he joked was karma.
"The biggest thing I learned is that when Dana says retire, you should retire," he said. "Otherwise, you will blow your knee out before your next fight.
"Here's the thing, two of my last three fights, I've pulled out due to injury," he said. "When you make a habit of being on the billboard, if you think about it, I pulled out of this fight, that fight, before long you become an unsecure product. I wouldn't invest in me at this point."
While he'll always be remembered for the Bonnar fight, the real high point of his career would have been his consecutive wins over Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Jackson, the latter winning him the UFC light-heavyweight title.
Like with the first Ortiz fight, Griffin's role looked to be inadvertent star maker against Rua. Rua, coming out of PRIDE, was thought by many to be the best light-heavyweight in the world prior to their battle on Sept. 22, 2007, in Anaheim. At the time, only a small percentage of U.S. fans even knew who he was, since he'd never fought in UFC. A win over Griffin would make him an instant star.
But it didn't happen that way. Griffin once again survived an early disadvantage. He had come into the fight in better condition, even with a serious shoulder injury. Fighting with one arm, he took over as Rua tired, winning via choke with 15 seconds left in the fight.
He was then chosen for a coaching spot on The Ultimate Fighter, with Jackson, to build for a championship fight. Once again a heavy underdog, Jackson, having beaten Liddell and Dan Henderson, didn't seem to take Griffin all that seriously. It proved his undoing as Griffin squeaked by in a close decision on July 5, 2008, in Las Vegas, based on simply wanting it more.
Griffin lost the title in his first defense against Rashad Evans.
His popularity still grew.
When UFC debuted in Philadelphia on Aug. 8, 2009, with Griffin facing Anderson Silva, it was very clear in the building that he was the star the locals sold out the Wachovia Center to see. Even with Silva and Penn on the show, nobody got near the response he did all night long.
Unfortunately, on that night, nothing was going to make up the talent differential. Griffin was knocked down four times in a fight that only lasted 3:23. He'd lost a few times before. But until this night, he had never looked completely out of his league, and he'd been in with a number of top fighters.
That show drew nearly 900,000 buys on pay-per-view, a number that was far more than anyone could have possibly predicted. But after the fight ended, he got up, and left the cage immediately, which the crowd saw as poor sportsmanship. And things changed.
People still liked him, but whether it was not even being competitive, or the feeling he was unprofessional when things didn't go his way, his drawing power waned. He never came close to that bond he had with the audience in Philadelphia, and in most every city he had fought previously. He became largely a Rich Franklin type, a guy who could headline on a show when no champions were available.
As White announced his retirement, he promised that Griffin would have a job with the company.
"He will stay with this company at least for the rest of my life," said White.
Exactly what his role will be is not yet determined, but both White and Griffin talked about perhaps working with charitable organizations.
"There's this charity in town, Four Square, we were looking into this," said White. "There's so many kids in Las Vegas that only eat when they're at school. After Fridays, they don't eat again until Monday. This company brings food to them over the weekends. We've talked to them. We found out about a guy, we didn't know who he was. He goes to the back. He goes there once a month, cooks food, he packs lunches and does whatever they need around there. Then, they said, when he leaves, he writes a check. That's who Forrest Griffin is. That blew us away. Lorenzo (Fertitta) and I think that would be an amazing job for Forrest."
"It's the thing we all say we're going to do," said Griffin. "I've always said that I'm going to be a better person, I'm going to volunteer, I'm going to do this and do that, but I've got to train for this fight now and I'll do it later. Now, it's later. And that's something I'd like to do."