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A Special Treat: Franklin vs. Griffin

Rich Franklin versus Forrest Griffin is a marquee matchup involving two former champions still in their competitive prime.

I typically break down the top matchups for each fight card. Not this one. No Xs and Os. No keys to victory. Not this time.

Rich Franklin versus Forrest Griffin isn’t that type of fight. Sure, it is a marquee matchup involving two former champions still in their competitive prime. It deserves as much promotional attention, in my opinion, as the main event between pound-for-pound ruler Anderson Silva and one of the sport’s favorite sons, Vitor Belfort.

Not because it is for a championship or to determine the next in line for a title shot. The winner will certainly put himself into the title discussions. The guy who comes up short likely won’t be doing much damage to his standing in the division. So, why does this deserve the same level of attention as a title fight or title eliminator? Because this puppy has all the ingredients to be a timeless war that the fans will talk about for ages.

That is all fine and good. But it doesn’t explain why I’m abandoning my traditional Xs and Os approach to the fights.

Let me explain. Even though I watch virtually every UFC fight live, I always watch tape of at least two fights of each competitor before diving into a breakdown. Why? Memories fade or get distorted during recall. The privilege of watching bouts again immediately before breaking down the action provides the luxury of pause and rewind, slow motion and looking for nuances, mistakes or tendencies through the filter of comparing one fighter’s strengths to another’s weaknesses.

Watching tape on these two for most of the day made me realize something very special. I noticed that after several hours of sitting in front of the television, I had not taken any notes—neither mental nor written—of their tendencies. I am also quite certain that I neither hit the pause, rewind or slow-motion buttons to break down the tape based on the matchup.

I also realized that I hadn’t watched four or five total fights. I instead watched Franklin and Griffin compete in a total of 17 bouts. That wasn’t my original plan. Like I said, the intent was to break down the tape of a handful of fights, per my usual routine.

That is when it hit me. Even though it was the fifth, sixth or even twentieth time that I had seen each of the fights, I had become lost in the action, viewing the bouts through the eyes of a fan, not the trained eye of someone breaking down tape.

Maybe that is because I started the day by watching the fight that many credit for changing the fortunes of the sport in terms of mainstream attention—Griffin’s first bout with Stephan Bonnar. It is tough to watch that fight and not get caught up in the moment. Has there ever been more exciting back-and-forth action inside the Octagon? The rematch wasn’t that much different.

Next up for me was Franklin’s bout with the late (and dearly missed) Evan Tanner. For my money, that fight isn’t that far behind Griffin-Bonnar I. Franklin’s resiliency surviving the early knockdown, and the awe-inspiring display of the human spirit by Tanner in refusing to quit, despite the certainty of defeat from midway through the second round onward, kept me glued to the action.

Franklin’s three knockout losses to Anderson Silva and Belfort and Griffin’s knockout losses to Keith Jardine, Rashad Evans and Silva followed. I was looking for mistakes that led to their brutal defeats. Instead, all I remember is the honesty of their effort and the raw emotion that followed. It was a vivid reminder that guys are baring their soul to the world each time they fight.

Great performances by Franklin in his bouts against Wanderlei Silva, Dan Henderson, Matt Hamill and Chuck Liddell served as reminders of what “Ace” can do when he is firing on all cylinders. For the record, I am convinced that Franklin deserved the nod against Hendo, despite the judges seeing it differently.

Griffin showed the same level of dominance in “shock the world” wins over Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. And, well, Forrest was just being Forrest in his two bouts with Tito Ortiz - an all-action, entertaining mixed martial artist. Those bouts serve as unquestioned evidence that Griffin can compete with anyone on any given day—often putting forth an effort worthy of Fight of the Year consideration.
The reality is that the fans are in for a rare treat each and every time Franklin and Griffin enter the cage. The hard-earned dollars of the fans pay their bills. Franklin and Griffin get it. They work extremely hard before and during the fight to repay the fans for the opportunity to earn lucrative livings doing what they love. That is why they fight to entertain, as much as they do to win.  They realize that MMA is a spectator sport first and foremost.

The end result of their commitment to engaging in thrilling bouts has been nothing short of astonishing. In their last eight bouts, the pair has captured four Fight of the Night awards, a Submission of the Night award, and the always favorite Knockout of the Night award. That is serious entertainment value for the fans. It is also why Saturday night is must-see TV.

 As far as this particular matchup goes, it has all the ingredients to be a timeless war. Neither man has true one-strike stopping power. Yes, I know Franklin destroyed Chuck Liddell in his last fight with a single punch. But even he would admit that he is more of a surgeon with his strikes than a destroyer.

Griffin has similar governors on his explosive power. He might not be as surgical with his attacks as his foe. Then again, who needs to be when the game plan often involves coming forward without any regard for self preservation and attacking in whirling dervish style? He forces opponents to stand and fight because they have no other option. Griffin simply won’t stop coming forward until they make him stop.

I would be shocked if either man spent much, if any, time trying to score a takedown, since neither has much interest in wrestling, other than trying master the art of anti-wrestling. They will more likely look to trade on the feet from the moment the action gets underway until either the referee or the timekeeper calls a halt to the action.

Sure, each of these guys has his own distinct advantages over the other. Franklin is the more technical of the two. Griffin is the bigger, stronger man. Franklin probably has a more polished submission game. Griffin has a sturdier jaw. Both could be mistaken for the Energizer Bunny on any given day.

But again, this fight isn’t about trying to compare their respective strengths and weaknesses. Not to me, at least. It is about grabbing your favorite beverage, sitting on the edge of your seat in the arena, on your couch or your favorite bar stool and watching two men bare their heart and soul inside the cage in an effort to entertain the fans and win a mixed martial arts contest.

To quote Donnie Brasco, “that, my friend, is a beautiful thing.”  And that, my friend, is why I will be watching on Saturday night. You should, too.