Forrest Griffin circa 2005 had the heart of a lion (and the face of a gremlin).
Forrest Griffin became a household MMA name after his run through the original Ultimate Fighter show. Goofily charming, Griffin had already amassed a record fitting a UFC fighter before appearing the show, with names like Dan Severn, Travis Fulton, Jeff Monson, Jermey Horn, and Chael Sonnen on his record. But it was Griffin’s gritty determination to fight and win that so impressed audiences back in 2005 that made him a fan favorite. His three round finale win over Stephan Bonnar, hailed as one of the most important fights in MMA history, was an instant classic not because Griffin thoroughly outclassed Bonnar, but because both fighters showed so much tenacity and desire in the fight. If you don’t mind me throwing the term around, Forrest Griffin won over fans because he showed a great deal of heart. It was clear just by watching him that Griffin wanted to fight, more than anything.
Six years later, Griffin is still with us and still somewhere in the top tier of light heavyweights, with a rematch against Shogun Rua to prove that Griffin belongs in that tier. Griffin said in interviews prior to the fight that a second win over Shogun would “validate” him as an elite light heavyweight.
And then he lost.
Leading up to the fight, Griffin had been a bit less sanguine about his fight than usual. Oh, Griffin still had jokes — he’s always a guy that will crack off a one-liner at any given time — but reading between the lines, some wondered whether Griffin still had the competitive fire that once burned so brightly in him. And after a loss to Shogun in which he looked slow and disinterested, some have begun to seriously ask: has Griffin lost the heart to fight?
Before appearing as a contestant on The Ultimate Fighter, Griffin competed at Heat FC 2 against Edson “Paredao” Silva. During the fight, he blocked a Paredao kick that broke his left arm. Griffin won the fight, via knockout. He would go on to have surgery on that arm after his TUF win two years later.
Griffin and Bonnar gained tons of fans (including Dana White) through a combined force of will — a double-team assault of heart so palpable that audiences could feel it watching at home. Even Forrest’s first win over Shogun was a show that when times got tough and the water got deep, Griffin dug down and pulled through.
Griffin seemed different after losing his fight with Anderson Silva, which is the closest thing anyone in contemporary times has ever seen to hand to hand combat with a Jedi. His confidence took a big hit, and his self-deprecating humor took on a tone that was uncomfortably close to a disclaimer. Griffin laughed as he talked about how ineffective he felt in that Silva fight, and we all laughed along, but really? Yeah, he really did look like a slow, slow white boy getting beat up by his dad.
Now, Griffin’s comparing his acceptance of the Shogun rematch with the stages of grieving. He doesn’t talk about wanting to be the number one fighter in the world, he talks about not wanting to be poor. He’s not talking about how he’s going to smash Shogun, he’s talking about wanting to smash some sweet potatoes, but he can’t find any in the far-off mythical land of Brazil.
Those aren’t the visualization habits and lofty motivations of a world beater. If all that matters is not being poor, one could argue that Griffin had made it. His five years with the UFC before the Shogun fight were probably lucrative enough to prevent worry about going back to a campus beat and Top Ramen, not to mention White’s oft-repeated loyalty to one of the fighters that helped save the UFC.
Couple all that with another shattering loss in the Octagon, this time against the guy who catapulted Forrest to the top of the division and a title shot in 2008, and you have to wonder where Griffin’s head is at. If he’s lost the desire to compete that made him such a fan favorite, can he regain it? Is Forrest Griffin, sans heart, a fighter that can stay at the top of the UFC’s dangerous 205 division?
As a fan of Griffin’s, I really hope so. I hope that this poor performance was just a result of traveling far from home, dealing with an unfamiliar culture, and having a really tough fight with a guy on his home turf. God knows, Griffin had plenty on his mind. But part of me does wonder if Griffin’s heart is still in it.
I may have some grieving of my own to do.