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The Rebirth of Tyson Griffin

“I’ve dealt with the pressures, I’ve performed well and I have to live
up to that. I can’t rest on my talent, if you will, or just my
conditioning or hard work. It’s a combination of everything.”

As 2010 dawned, any talk of Tyson Griffin usually involved his place in the lightweight title picture thanks to back-to-back victories over Rafael dos Anjos and Hermes Franca. Two fights since then the talk is a lot a different, and the Sacramento native has heard it all.

“I’ve never been one to let that get to me,” said Griffin when asked about the backlash that comes with consecutive losses, albeit to top 155-pounders Evan Dunham and Takanori Gomi. “I feel like I’m my worst critic. There’s nothing that anybody can say or tweet or facebook about me that I’m not gonna say tenfold.”

So if you think the 26-year old is caught in a downward spiral that will continue into his UFC 123 bout this weekend against Nik Lentz, think again. For him, Saturday night kicks off a new beginning to a career that is far from over.

“I took a lot of time off after the Gomi fight and did a lot of soul searching and all that kinda stuff and I definitely feel like my career is kinda just starting,” said Griffin, who admits that following his decision loss to Xtreme Couture teammate Dunham in June, he started to re-evaluate where he was in his career and in life. But then came the Gomi fight less than two months later and a crushing 64 second knockout defeat. The hill then became a mountain, but he’s packed his proverbial hiking boots for the trip.

“I started that rejuvenation before I fought Gomi,” he said. “I was really motivated after losing to Evan Dunham the way I did and really took it into my own hands about why I lost and how. Mentally I may not have been ready to take another fight as fast as I did with Gomi and I kinda got stuck going through the motions, but whatever happened happened for that fight. So I continued that renewing thought after the time off and getting back in there, so it’s been good.”

What Griffin’s soul searching consisted of was going through every aspect of his life and seeing where he could remove distractions and improve the quality of his training.

“I’ve always been one to get in the gym and push hard and train hard, but if your mind’s not into it, it really doesn’t matter what you’re doing,” he said. “So I definitely rearranged some things, I feel like I’m re-dedicated to the sport, and re-dedicated to my career as a professional fighter.”

He also brought in a secret weapon that’s not so secret anymore – his brother, former Oklahoma State wrestler Kyle Griffin.

“I always joke around and tell people that he’s the wrestler, I’m the athlete,” laughed Tyson. “I always played a bunch of different sports, and then in the summer I was doing football camp and he was still the guy competing in wrestling and doing freestyle and Greco and things of that nature. So having my brother move down here recently, I’m basically getting back to doing a lot of wrestling, and keeping things simple and technical. He’s definitely been a big help.”

And though Griffin has always been seen as a wrestling-based fighter, as the quality of the game elevates, so must every aspect of a fighter’s game. For Griffin, who began wrestling in middle school, he will find himself at a disadvantage against someone like Lentz, a Division I college wrestler.

“I’ve really relied on my athleticism and my creativity when it comes to wrestling and it’s hard to do against these guys who have been wrestling since they were four years old,” he admits, but that just comes part and parcel with a game that is always evolving. Luckily for Griffin, he’s been paying attention the entire time.

“People, critics, fans, whoever they may be, forget the curve of the sport,” he said. “I’ve been at this for a little bit now, even though I’m young and I am an overthinker. (Laughs) But one of things I think about is the way the sport’s gone. It’s gone from barroom brawling Tank Abbott to Royce Gracie Jiu-Jitsu to everybody learning the submissions and no one getting submitted, then everybody learning how to knock people out and people not wanting to get knocked out and learning how to wrestle, so the sport itself is getting to be that competitive where every guy is good at everything and sometimes the only way to win is to win the wrestling part of it. Everybody’s good at striking and their defense is good enough to not get knocked out, their submission defense is good enough to not get submitted, and so there are definitely more than two edges on the sword these days. It’s crazy thinking about the game plans that you have to come up with. You really just have to train everything all the time.”

Against Lentz, Griffin will have to be prepared for everything because despite his less than scintillating win over Andre Winner earlier this year, the Minnesotan can handle himself wherever the fight goes, and if he wants it to end up on the mat with him in total positional control, he can probably pull that off. That’s not what Griffin wants though, and he’s prepared accordingly.

“I think he’s a smart fighter,” said Griffin of Lentz. “He fought Andre Winner very smart and beat him at his weakness. That’s what mixed martial arts is all about. I always say that the people who want to knock him for that need to go watch kickboxing, because this is mixed martial arts. If you watch The Ultimate Fighter show, you heard (American Kickboxing Academy trainer) Bob Cook say that wrestling wins fights, and if you want to knock the other guy out, you’ve got to be the better wrestler and keep the fight there. With that said, I’ve been working on everything and getting back to my roots. I’m expecting a tough, hard-nosed Nik Lentz that brings the pace, and if he thinks the smart thing to do is to take me down, I’m ready for that, and if he wants to stand up with me, I’m ready for that as well. More than anything, I’m looking to fight my fight and push the pace and use my biggest weapon, which is my conditioning. If I get caught by Nik Lentz, so be it – that’s the game we play with four ounce gloves - but I’m not gonna let anybody beat me by decision. If they beat me by decision, they’re gonna have to earn it a lot tougher.”

If anything, Griffin has made it clear that there are no doubts in his mind after his last two bouts, no questions of whether he can make it to the next level that seemed a given after he won five of his first six UFC fights. Instead, Griffin is aware that this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and that he’s just getting started on the second leg of the race.

“It’s definitely a marathon,” he said. “I’ve dealt with the pressures, I’ve performed well and I have to live up to that. I can’t rest on my talent, if you will, or just my conditioning or hard work. It’s a combination of everything.”

A little luck never hurt either, and if he’s looking for some interesting omens surrounding his ‘new beginning’, he only needs to look at the UFC 123 fight card, where he’s opening the event for the first time since his Octagon debut against David Lee back in 2006. Also on that card? Matt Hughes and BJ Penn, who compete in their rubber match this weekend.

Griffin chuckles when informed of those two tidbits.

“I can’t really say I’m superstitious; I’m kinda almost the opposite,” he said. “But that definitely sounds like a good omen to me.”