Monday, 10 June 2013 12:03
There's an age old trope in the fight game that journalists and fighters alike are wont to fall back on whenever a recently crowned champion gears up to attempt his first title defense. Perhaps you've heard it? It's the one about how you aren't really a champion until you've successfully retained your belt.
By and large it's a bullshit line. Journalists desperate for an angle often pull it out of their repertoire of rhetorical cliches when faced with the uninspiring task of writing about a title match without any real promotional sizzle behind it. Fighters use it as a motivational tool, similar to how some long term champions claim to look at themselves as the challenger going into every title defense; the idea being it's a way to keep yourself hungry once you've already feasted on the richest prize in the sport.
Evidently Forrest Griffin subscribed to this line of thinking after he earned the UFC light heavyweight championship by defeating Quinton "Rampage' Jackson. In fact, according to the UFC Countdown special hyping up his first title defense at UFC 92, Griffin's hesitance to define himself as the true champion went so far as him requesting the strap be kept in storage at UFC headquarters during his reign. One pictures a nervous Zuffa intern gingerly lifting the belt out of a treasure chest sitting in UFC President Dana White's personal office and hastily shuttling it to Griffin for promotional events and photo ops -- almost like the belt once worn by Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, and Tito Ortiz was a 12 pound golden library book Griffin was afraid to take home and enjoy lest he inadvertently spill coffee on it and get slapped with a fine.
"It's the best feeling there is," Griffin explained when talking to the Countdown production crew about winning the title. "And once you've had it, the only thing you can do is have it again. Now I have to figure out a way to get there again."
Standing in the way of Griffin getting there again was The Ultimate Fighter season two winner Rashad Evans. At the time Evans, a former NCAA Division I wrestler who had yet to taste defeat as a professional fighter, was riding high after knocking out erstwhile light heavyweight champ Liddell. Keep in mind this was in 2008, back when a victory over the once-dreaded Iceman still meant something. Based on Evans' recent performances in the Octagon, he looked like a solid test for Griffin. However, he was far from an insurmountable one for a fighter who had just defeated both Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Rampage Jackson in succession.
Griffin was the clear fan favorite on fight night. As he walked to the Octagon accompanied by the incongruous amalgamation of nineties skate punk and Celtic bag pipe music that is the Dropkick Murphy's "I'm Shipping Up to Boston," a packed MGM Grand gave the recently-minted champion an ovation worthy of a newly elected Pope giving his first public blessing to a throng of reverent admirers.
The challenger got a decidedly less enthusiastic welcome. Evans had been a heel to the UFC audience ever since former middleweight champ Matt Hughes called him out for showboating on an episode of TUF. It didn't matter that Evans was by all accounts an extremely nice guy; he was already typecast as an arrogant jerk in the minds of the fans.
The first round consisted of a protracted feeling out process where Griffin and Evans traded occasional combinations while working to slip into a comfortable rhythm. Griffin found his emphatically in the second and proceeded to light Evans up for the majority of the round while the crowd inside the MGM Grand broke into ecstatic chants of "Forrest, Forrest."
Then, in less than five minutes, everything fell apart. Griffin tried a low kick to open the round, but Evans caught it and used it as a lever to send him crashing to the mat. From there the challenger unloaded with a brutal series of hammer fists. It was a pugilistic storm Griffin was just barely able to weather, but eventually he recovered and closed up his guard. That would prove a fleeting respite for the defending champ. Evans postured up, broke Griffin's guard, and began unloading with a relentless barrage of punches for the TKO victory.
After three years spent fighting to get to the championship level in the UFC, Griffin lost the belt just three rounds into his first title defense. If he truly bought into the idea that he wasn't a real champion until he defended the belt, it might have almost felt like he was never champion at all; like the UFC light heavyweight title was a lover he was only able to hold close for one night before she slipped through his fingers and retreated from his present to a home forever in his past.
Although Griffin wasn't successful in the Octagon that night, ironically enough UFC 92 was his finest moment as a draw. The event did a monstrous 1.0 million buys on PPV thanks in large part to the allure of seeing Griffin as champion. We'll never know what kind of business a protracted Forrest Griffin title reign would have done, but it's entirely possible he may have ended up in the same league as the UFC's current pound for pound PPV king Georges St-Pierre.
That's the thing with idle speculation though. When it hits too close to home it can lead to all sorts of unresolvable "what ifs" that keep the best of us, even former champions, laying awake until early morning replaying in minute, excruciating detail how things went wrong. All it takes is one little "What if Rashad hadn't caught that lowkick?" for the vicious cycle of rumination and regret to start wrapping itself around one's mind with all the destructive power of a boa constrictor.
The reality is, Griffin never came close to title contention again. Losing the title was unquestionably the lowest moment in Griffin's career to that point, but things were about to get worse.
Normally when a fighter comes off the most devastating loss of his career, he takes a slight step down in competition for his next bout in order to help build his confidence back up.
What he doesn't do, what nobody struggling to get his mojo back does, is face the consensus best fighter alive. Yet that's exactly what Griffin did when he returned from his title loss against Evans and took on UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva in a special attraction light heavyweight bout.
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight it seems like such a bad idea. It's hard to sit here in 2013, knowing as we do how things worked out for Griffin, and see the potential positives that must have been enticing when he was offered the Silva fight back in 2009. If Griffin won he would have defeated a legend and likely jumped to the head of the line for the next light heavyweight title shot. And if he lost? Big deal; it's not like Silva was going to cripple him or anything. Griffin was a dog after all; even if he couldn't defeat Silva he'd still press the action and , as he famously told Joe Rogan a few years prior, "make it a fight."
How could Griffin have known that he wouldn't just be defeated by Silva, but he would be thoroughly outclassed in a way that made all of his prior accomplishments look like nothing more than a series of lucky breaks?
It appears second thoughts about what he had signed up for were already starting to creep into Griffin's mind as the bout grew closer. Years later he would reveal he took the anti-anxiety drug Xanax to help get to sleep on the eve of the fight. As a result Griffin failed his post-fight drug test and was suspended for three months. In an ironic twist, the biggest win of his career would have likely been ruled a no-contest in the event he pulled off the upset and beat Silva. As it turned out, that wouldn't be an issue.
On fight night the difference between Griffin and Silva's demeanor couldn't have been more pronounced. Griffin was bouncing up and down on his heels like a taught spring that couldn't wait to uncoil, his face betraying the psychic Daytona 500 going on in his prefrontal cortex with cars bearing the words "doubt," "anticipation," and "nervousness" vying for the lead. Like in many of his pre-fight warm ups, he beat his chest with fists and let out a yell. This time it looked more like an attempt to embolden himself than it did the anticipatory reaction of a leashed hunting dog waiting to be turned lose.
In contrast, Silva looked as composed as Michelangelo must have at the start of another day's work on the Sistine Chapel. It wouldn't be long before Griffin learned the hard way what genius feels like up close and personal.
Griffin opened the fight by throwing a 1-2 head kick combination that missed Silva by about four zip codes. Silva did a masterful job playing matador to Griffin's raging bull. He lured his man into chasing after him and then dodged Griffin's every shot like it was thrown in slow motion by a sloth covered in molasses. After what must have felt like an interminable minute and a half of swinging at nothing but air Griffin finally landed his first shot: a leg kick. Silva effortlessly caught the kick and used it to set up a right hand of his own. The punch sent Griffin reeling.
Thirty seconds later Silva, seemingly content with the job he had done thus far proving Griffin couldn't hit him unless he allowed it, decided to stop playing games. He charged in with a series of punches, including a right hand that clipped Griffin on the jaw and dropped him. Griffin proved more resilient this time and popped back up to his feet. He ate a stiff right hook for his troubles.
Silva was on a roll and, what's more, he knew it. He began shimmying from side to side in a display of supreme confidence. Then he started beating his chest with both fists, in an attempt to provoke Griffin into bringing the fight to him.
Griffin did his best to oblige and threw another high kick. This time it came close enough for Silva to block it with a dismissive motion. It almost reminded one of how a big game hunter on safari would swat away an annoying gnat.
Despite Silva's complete mastery of the situation, Griffin remained unbowed. He unloaded with a series of combinations. Silva slipped every one with the composed grace of a ballet dancer. Like a baseball team on the wrong end of a no-hitter, Griffin kept unloading with whiffing combinations until Silva tagged him with a lighting quick right hand. The blow sent Griffin crashing to the canvas for the second time.
Silva moved in to finish the job and pound his supine opponent out, but this time Griffin was able to put his legs up in butterfly guard position and momentarily keep Silva at bay. A completely unfazed Silva opted to let his opponent back up. When he returned to his feet, Silva stretched out both hands and offered them to Griffin in a display of sportsmanship that straddled the line between respect and outright condescension.
Evidently not being one to take kindly to charity, Griffin again threw another series of combos at Silva. Again they connected with nothing but the air where Silva had been standing just milliseconds earlier.
Then, suddenly and without warning, Griffin fell on his back like a man who had been shot by a sniper's rifle. It all happened so fast it was hard to tell what happened in real time, but seconds later an instant replay revealed where the magic bullet had been fired from.
It turned out, that of all things, Griffin was knocked out by a pawing right jab Silva threw as he was stepping away from yet another ineffectual flurry.
A jab. It had only taken a jab for Silva to put Griffin to sleep like a veterinarian laying a terminally ill dog to rest. Not just any jab either, but one thrown from a position where it was impossible to generate anywhere close to full power. The incongruity of the innocuous looking punch and the devastation it wrought gave birth to a conundrum that would be hotly debated by fans in the weeks and months to come: Was Silva just that good? Or was Griffin just that mediocre?
Griffin seemed unable to ever fully come to terms with that question himself.
It certainly wasn't a subject he wanted to discuss with color commentator Joe Rogan and by proxy UFC fans across the world, especially not while the wound was still so fresh. Almost immediately after regaining consciousness, Griffin bolted out of the Octagon. In a scene reminiscent of the aftermath of Griffin's knockout loss to Kieth Jardine, a smattering of boos fell down upon the erstwhile fan-favorite as he made a bee-line for the backstage area. The more compassionate members of the audience tactfully held their tongues though. After all, Griffin had just been through the most humiliating experience of his career. He had given the fans too much over the years for them to turn around and kick him while he was down.
And Griffin certainly was down after the loss to Silva. A year later he opened up to radio personality Jason Ellis about how he felt during the fight.
"I was very confused," Griffin admitted. "I tried to punch him and he literally moved his head out of the way and looked at me like I was stupid for doing it. He looked at me like, ‘Why would you do such a stupid thing?' ...Then he punched me. I felt embarrassed for even trying to punch him. I felt like some kid trying to wrestle with his dad."
Or maybe, he was more like a dog trying to defend itself against a lion.
Griffin lost something after the Silva fight that he never quite got back.
It wasn't his jaw. Sure Griffin may have lost a rematch with Shogun Rua in Brazil by way of first round KO, but it wasn't like he insensibly crumbled to the mat at the merest love tap like his TUF 1 coach and fellow former light heavyweight champ Chuck Liddell during the twilight of his career.
It wasn't his popularity either. Sure some fans may have jumped off the bandwagon after how easily he was destroyed by Silva and how ungracefully Griffin himself took said destruction, but he still remained among the UFC's biggest stars.
Nor was it his ability to win a fight. On the contrary, Griffin would amass a respectable 3-1 record over the remainder of his career.
So what was it then?
In part it was that nebulous x-factor fans sensed in Griffin that helped his star shine noticeably brighter than Stephan Bonnar's after their instant classic on the first TUF finale. You could call it heart, drive, motivation, hunger or any other name you choose for the inner fire that burned inside Griffin in the early days of his career; the fire that motivated him to train with a single minded intensity that caused his coach and fellow workhorse Randy Couture to pull him aside and lecture him on the risk of overtraining; the hunger that drove him to fight like a starving rottweiler in his early UFC appearances; the heart that led him to the pinnacle of the sport, even if only for a fleeting four months, despite coming into his every major fight facing long odds.
You could call it all that, but you'd still fall short of encapsulating the totality of what Griffin lost that day in August of 2009. To succeed in that we need to leave the literal behind and resort to metaphor. Then it becomes clear as Lake Taho under the summer sun.
Forrest Griffin was no longer a dog.
That shouldn't come as much of a surprise. After all, one thing dogs and fighters both share in common is a brief lifespan. This is especially true for gritty fighters who fall into the habit of getting in their opponents faces and "making it a fight."
There's a famous line in a Neil Young song about it being better to burn out than to fade away that seems apropos here. If it wasn't for Griffin giving it his all in every second of his every bout early in his career he never would have achieved what he did in the sport of MMA. He also likely never would have forged the bond with the fans that made him a rich man and guaranteed a spot near the top of any card he fought on for the bulk of his UFC tenure. The flip side is the very workhorse style that made his career what it was also burned his body out and helped lead to his premature retirement at just age 33.
Now that Griffin has walked away from the sport that defined the majority of his entire adult life, he'll have lots of time on his hands to muse over a question most of us face eventually when we transition into retirement.
We've all heard it said how every dog has its day, but nobody ever bothers to think about the sequel to that hoary cliche.
What does a dog do next after his day has come and gone?