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Flashback: Forrest Griffin’s New Reality

Flashback to the days after Forrest Griffin's historic TUF Finale bout with Stephan Bonnar

Nine days after the biggest fight of his career, Forrest Griffin was starting to get used to life in the spotlight. It had not gotten too crazy yet for the newest member of the UFC roster, but it was going to get that way for the future light heavyweight champion and UFC Hall of Famer. But on this day in 2005, he was more than ready to talk not just about his win over Stephan Bonnar, but the journey he took to get to the Octagon. And what a journey it was.

April 18, 2005

Nine days after the biggest victory of his mixed martial arts career, a lot has changed for Georgia’s Forrest Griffin.  He’s got a six-figure contract, a new car, a fancy watch, and all that fun stuff that goes along with being a reality television star and a fighter who history may look at 20 years from now as being the one who helped push a fairly young sport onto the next level of mainstream acceptance.

Some things haven’t changed though, like his self-effacing sense of humor (“Now I have to figure out what the hell people with a little bit of money do with it to get the government not to take it,” said Griffin on his elevation to a new tax bracket), or his lack of health insurance, which prompted him to remove the stitches from his face with his own hand and the aid of an Xacto knife.

“I don’t have insurance and I couldn’t get a hold of anybody and I was supposed to take them out a couple of days ago and the skin was starting to grow around them so I had to cut them out with the Xacto knife,” chuckles Griffin.

Meet MMA’s newest star.

Of course you don’t tell him that, because the 25-year-old will shoot down that notion with the speed of one of his haymakers to the head – punches that led him to a stirring unanimous decision win over Stephan Bonnar in the finale of Spike TV’s reality show The Ultimate Fighter and earned him a UFC contract and the adulation of thousands of fans.  It’s because Griffin is not one to speak of himself in the third person or place himself on a higher plane then his fellow pugilists.  For now, he’s just enjoying the ride.

“This is my 15 minutes,” said Griffin. “I’m going to live it up.”

That included a stay in Vegas last week for UFC 52, a card that featured Chuck Liddell’s knockout win of Randy Couture and a pre-fight autograph session with his fellow TV alums.  Griffin had plenty to digest after that weekend.

On This Day: Griffin vs Bonnar I | Free Fight
On This Day: Griffin vs Bonnar I | Free Fight
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“For me, the reaction was amazing that people would actually stand in line to get my autograph,” said Griffin.  “The reactions from the people seemed to be pretty good; they seemed to like me, which is important – I like to be liked.”

It’s hard not to like Griffin, who outside the ring is someone you would probably want to hang out with – the guy with the quick wit who can’t help but make you laugh.  Inside the ring, he’s all fighter, the stereotypical warrior who will leave it all in the ring – literally – in search of victory.  If you don’t want to watch a guy like Forrest Griffin fight, you need to find a new sport to follow.

October 27, 2001 

Also in Vegas last week was UFC pioneer Dan Severn, who joined previous honorees Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock in the organization’s Hall of Fame.  Almost four years ago, Severn - who at 50, still fights every few months – traveled to Augusta, Georgia for a Reality Superfighting show entitled “New Blood Conflict”.  The only problem was finding some new blood for Severn to fight.

Enter one Forrest Griffin, who was exposed to mixed martial arts shortly after graduating with a Criminal Justice degree from the University of Georgia.  Then working as a Police Officer for the university, Griffin was moonlighting in the fight game, compiling a 6-0 amateur record. 

Then he got a phone call.

“I was a hometown kid and they wanted to use the angle of the local kid fighting Dan Severn,” said Griffin of his first professional bout.  “The guy said he’d give me 250 bucks, and I said what the hell, I’d do it for free.  At that time, it was before I used to really give a s**t about it. I had a good job as a police officer, and it was a hobby – it was fun.  It was a win-win situation.  No matter what happened, it was Dan Severn.  Who cares if you lost to him?  So have some of the best in the world.”

Severn, then 47, wasn’t nearly at his early best, but he was just a year removed from competing in the UFC against Pedro Rizzo and still had enough to deal a debuting pro his first defeat.  Griffin lost his debut via decision, a bout that many described as a boring display of ground-and-pound.  Boring wasn’t a word that would be associated with Griffin too often.

LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 09: (R-L) Forrest Griffin punches Stephan Bonnar during their light heavyweight finals bout at The Ultimate Fighter Season 1 Finale inside the Cox Pavilion on April 9, 2005 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 09: (R-L) Forrest Griffin punches Stephan Bonnar during their light heavyweight finals bout at The Ultimate Fighter Season 1 Finale inside the Cox Pavilion on April 9, 2005 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa

November 24, 2001

A month after losing his pro debut to Severn, Griffin got a call to travel to South Africa to fight Wiehan Lesh in a show entitled “Pride and Honor”.  It was a great opportunity – travel a bit, get a win on the record, and get paid at the same time.  

But ten seconds into the fight, the only thing Griffin was looking at was another loss, as he dislocated his shoulder.  Most fighters would have packed it in right then and there, understandably, and some referees would have even called the bout off at the first sign of the injury, but neither scenario played out for Griffin.  He continued to battle with one arm, waited for an opening, and secured a rear naked choke.  A tap out followed, and almost immediately, Griffin hit the canvas – not in joy, but in pain.

“My shoulder was out of the socket and immediately after I tapped the guy out I started rolling around in pain,” remembered Griffin. “I’m rolling around with this grimace on my face and people are like, ‘what happened?’  Well, look at my shoulder.”

Yet even while recalling this painful memory, Griffin finds humor in it as he recalls the South African television commentator’s reaction to his post-fight roll around the canvas.

“The American with an interesting celebration,” said Griffin with a dead-on impression of a South African accent.  

2002 proved to be a better year for Griffin, as he took the momentum from his first victory with him en route to a 5-0 record which included wins over Jeff Monson and Travis Fulton. 

“I was like, well, I’m pretty good, and I thought to myself that I could probably take this,” said Griffin.  “It’s like having a little bit of talent – it’s pressure.”

A training injury that broke his hand would sideline him for the first half of 2003, but Griffin returned in style in July of that year with a submission win over Ebenezer Fontes Braga in Brazil.  Griffin split two fights in an IFC tournament less than two months later (beating Chael Sonnen and losing to Jeremy Horn), but the future was bright when he was given the opportunity to travel back to Brazil to fight.  What happened that night almost left the fight world without Forrest Griffin.

LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 09: (R-L) Forrest Griffin reacts after his decision victory over Stephan Bonnar in the light heavyweight finals bout at The Ultimate Fighter Season 1 Finale inside the Cox Pavilion on April 9, 2005 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 09: (R-L) Forrest Griffin reacts after his decision victory over Stephan Bonnar in the light heavyweight finals bout at The Ultimate Fighter Season 1 Finale inside the Cox Pavilion on April 9, 2005 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jos

December 18, 2003

One week before Christmas, 2003.  Griffin wasn’t digging though snow or handling police work – he was in Brazil, looking to make it 2-0 against the hometown heroes when he battled Edson Paredao at the second Heat FC show.  Griffin isn’t the type to worry about hometown decisions or being treated unfairly.  He believes he brings his own judges to the fight, and if he’s still physically able to compete, he will.  It’s a drive that most fighters have, one that translates from the ring to their personal lives, no matter what the endeavor.

“I get pissed if I lose in monopoly,” said Griffin.  “In the (Ultimate Fighter) house everybody was playing chess.  Well, I love to play chess but there were a couple of guys who were better than me so I never played.”

You don’t bleed in chess though.

“Well, not much,” he quips.  “You cry sometimes.” 

There was no crying going on in the life of Griffin to that point, and as the wins piled up, he knew that another couple of victories would put him in the UFC – the dream of any stateside mixed martial artist. 

But fate intervened.

Early on in his fight against Paredao, the Brazilian gave Griffin something to remember him by – a broken arm. To this day, The Georgian walks around with a huge lump on his left forearm courtesy of Paredao, but once again, Griffin refused to quit.

“You just don’t know what else to do,” he said.  “Had it gone through the round, I wouldn’t have come out for the second.”

Griffin never had to make that decision though, as he knocked out Paredao with his good arm (the right) to earn his ninth victory.  At that point, it was going to be his last.

“I felt that I was really about to take that step when Joe Silva called me and talked about fighting in the UFC, and I felt I was really about to turn that corner and the next fight – bam! – broken arm, that’s it.”

April 9, 2005 

On the shelf with a broken arm, Griffin had decided he had had enough of the fight game.  The injuries – major and minor, the low pay, the physical and mental strain, why bother?  He had a degree, a good job, a girlfriend; he didn’t need the fight game.

But the phone would ring again, and Griffin would push everything in his life to the side – the job, the girlfriend, the degree – for the opportunity of a lifetime, to appear on “The Ultimate Fighter” series.  He would spend two months in a fishbowl with the entire nation watching, all for the remote possibility that he would be the last man standing in a house full of fighters.

He made it.

Not that it was easy; not that he didn’t have to fight through a nasty gash on his left eyebrow to get to the finals, but on April 9, Griffin was one win away from glory once again.  Fellow light heavyweight hopeful Stephan Bonnar stood across the Octagon from him, and neither fighter was willing to blink.

The ensuing 15 minutes encapsulated the best of what this sport has to offer, and the best of two fighters who fought as if their lives were at stake.  If you didn’t walk away from your television set a fan that night, I don’t know what to tell you.  About the only person disappointed with the three round war was the winner.

“I only watched it once,” admitted Griffin.  “I guess I kinda had to.  It was a hard, a lot of missed opportunities, and a lot of things where you know better.  You know you can do this or do that, but you don’t.  But the bottom line is I felt like I fought a great first round.  I felt like I came out and just started going at it.”

Bonnar eagerly accepted Griffin’s willingness to scrap, and the pattern and pace rarely changed throughout the bout.  Griffin took the first round and Bonnar rebounded in the second, leaving his foe bloodied from a cut on the bridge of his nose.  Did you expect anything less from Griffin?

“I don’t know, man,” chuckles Griffin.  “You need to get popped; you need to get a little bit of something.  It helps if you get backed into a corner.”

Backed into a corner by Bonnar’s attack and exhausted by the furious pace of the first ten minutes, Griffin’s chest visibly heaved for any air it could get, but he continued to fight, and the third round became as memorable as the first two, and at the end, even though Griffin got the decision, both he and Bonnar received UFC contracts.  It was the fight game’s rare happy ending, an exclamation point on the first part of a career that many will dub an overnight success.  Does Griffin see the irony in such a statement?

“Not really,” he said.  “I didn’t get here through all that hard work and winning fights nonsense; I got here through a TV game show, and I’m comfortable with that.”

He laughs, and now, he can afford to.

2005 and beyond

After the war with Bonnar, Forrest Griffin earned a break, but now that he has played doctor and removed his own stitches, it will be back to work in the gym.  He expects to make his proper UFC debut soon.

“It’s a strike while the iron is hot thing,” said Griffin.  “(UFC President) Dana (White) said go home, get started, get back in shape, and we’ll see.”  

Dare we ask for a rematch with Bonnar?

“Yeah, of course; it will be on pay-per-view though.”

From here on out, it’s all gravy, barring injury or an extended losing streak.  Griffin can devote all his time to training and fighting, as well as studying guys like the ones he watched last Saturday night – Liddell and Couture.

“I’ve been a good B-level fighter for a couple of years now, and I’ve been on that fringe,” said Griffin.  “I’ve fought decent guys, I’ve fought good guys.  I feel like I’ve been close to that level, and now I’m here; so now it’s just about making sure that I’m ready to be there, and that I deserve to be there.”

Guess that means no more police work back in Georgia, eh?

“I’ll be going back to that, but I’ll be going back when I’m all puffed and battered, with my tail between my legs,” said Griffin. “I’ll be coming back ‘please, please, I’m all beat up and I can’t fight anymore.  Give me my old job.’ But for now I’m doing this.”  

Welcome to the big show, Forrest Griffin.  MMA could use more fighters like you.

“If you say so,” and then he chuckles again.

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