One way the UFC distinguished itself from boxing is that it seldom marketed uncompetitive matches or gave fighters easy wins in order to set up bigger fights down the road. That being said, Shogun Rua vs. Forrest Griffin was about as close as they’ve come to an attempt at that kind of cynical matchmaking. Rua was ranked number one in the world and had decimated opponents in Japan for years and Forrest was one of the most popular of the UFC’s roster but one who was thought to be limited as a fighter.
The UFC, had recently purchased its former rival Pride Fighting Championships, and had access to the Japanese promotion’s roster of stars, setting up a potential spate of dream matches that fans had coveted for years. Many in the press had long speculated that the best martial artists were fighting for PrideFC and the not in the UFC.
The argument went that the UFC was living off it’s roster of aging stars and what new talent it did have wasn’t really world class because it was being drawn more and more from the pool of The Ultimate Fighter alumni. Skeptics argued that this was not because the show was producing talented mixed martial artists but because, by the time they’d gotten months worth of exposure on the show they were ready-made celebrities. Furthermore, contestants had to sign ironclad contracts just to tryout, so the UFC could be in a dominant negotiating position with talent pulled from the show. If PrideFC’s world-class fighters were ever allowed to compete against UFC TUF B-leaguer’s, they would eat them up, so the argument went.
Forrest Griffin was a case in point. His popularity grew from winning the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. He was much beloved by fans but had always been considered a lovable brawler, a kind of novelty act, rather than someone who should be considered among the sports elite. Rua was unquestionably world-class, one of the most devastating offensive fighters in the game. Forrest had an incredible heart, liked to brawl, and was easy to hit so it was a recipe for an entertaining fight with a violent end, which would introduce a victorious Rua to American fans. The UFC was so confident in this outcome that they’d subtitled the event “Knockout.”
I attended the fight with a radio producer and his wife. It was their first MMA event and I explained some of the nuances. “It’s much more dangerous to take a sustained beating than to get finished in a fight,” I said addressing their concerns about the brutality of the sport. “Believe it or not, because it’s so much easier to finish a hurt opponent in MMA, it’s actually much safer than boxing,” I told them. They were unconvinced.
“What about all the blood?” he asked me.
“It can be very bloody but the blood usually comes from scalp cuts that aren’t dangerous.”
As we watched the fights unfold their attention waned whenever the action went to the ground so I tried to explain what was happening.
“A lot of the grappling looks like nothing is going on but it’s a struggle for position. Each guy is trying to get in a position where he can punch the other guy and not get hit back.”
They perked up when Forrest entered the Octagon, because they’d heard of him and were surprised when I told them what a huge underdog he was against Rua.
Once the match began, Forrest surprised everyone, by giving as good as he got in the exchanges. When the Brazilian started taking Forrest down, Forrest was able to frustrate him with his unexpectedly expert use of the Guard. Even so, Forrest took some heavy blows from Rua while on the bottom that busted him up over the course of the fight. Forrest was never a hard puncher but he was huge for a light heavyweight and very strong and scrappy. He set a pace that had Rua gasping for air by the start of the third round. The breakthrough came when Forrest landed a very tricky move from the Guard called an Oomplata and reversed positions. Now it was Forrest who seemed fresh on top of a tired and gasping Rua. Now in dominant position Forrest rained down blows until Rua gave up his back and Forrest sank in the choke. Rua elected to tap out instead of losing consciousness. Forrest leapt up and ran around the ring in celebration as the crowd cheered loudly.
In the post fight interview Forrest told Rogan “I’m not a super talented guy, but I don’t quit and I’ll fight you tooth and nail.”
The fight upset the UFC’s plans short term but in the larger sense it was a validation of The Ultimate Fighter as a system for legitimate talent development.
I don’t know if either of my guests retained much of my tutorial on the finer points of MMA or even if they ever watched another fight but when we left the building that night they were buzzing about how much they’d loved watching Forrest Griffin.