It’s been six years since Forrest Griffin became a household name by going toe-to-toe with Stephan Bonnar on his way to winning The Ultimate Fighter. Since that time, the UFC has held more than 110 live events, broadcast 11 more seasons of TUF, and become an international sensation.Without Forrest, none of that would have been possible.
APRIL 9, 2005: LAS VEGAS, NVTUF PRE-FIGHT
Photo shoots are over, weigh-ins are finished,and for the first time ever, Forrest and his cornermen sit in a UFC locker room, collectively thinking, “Do we even belong here?”
In a short time, Forrest had gone from reluctant reality show participant on TUF to being in the show’s finale. This was the UFC’s first foray on free television. While the taped shows were airing on a weekly basis, the outcome had to remain a secret until the final show aired. In the meantime, Forrest had come back to The HardCore Gym in Athens, GA, to train for the live finale. Less than nine months before, Forrest had retired from fighting and taken a job as a cop, riding patrol in his hometown of Augusta, GA. Las Vegas and stardom were a million miles away. Each week, with every passing episode and each day of training, it drew closer and closer.
Kenny Florian warmed up in the same dressing room on the night of the finale for his bout with Diego Sanchez. His coach constantly told him, “It’s your time Kenny, you’re a warrior.” Forrest and I smiled at each other, and I silently wondered, “Did he want me to scream at him like that? Slap him?” At the time, all I could think was that I had no more experience playing my part than he did his. The outward confidence he showed always belied an inner self-doubt. As his coach and friend, I believed he would win every fight or die trying. Call him a warrior, gladiator, or samurai, Forrest embodies the qualities fans idolize. Smart, funny, dangerous, and rugged, Forrest was the package the modern UFC needed to reach the mainstream. I knew when he entered the Octagon that he would do whatever was needed.
When Forrest was introduced on his way to the cage, the crowd went crazy. Reality TV and his self-deprecating humor had already made him a star. Overtime, the size of his fights would grow and his fan base would explode, but there was no bigger moment.
Reflecting on that night, Forrest says, “Fighting in the TUF finale was the biggest event in my life and possibly the biggest thing that has ever happened to me, including winning the UFC Light Heavyweight Title. That moment, the way the sport took off, Spike TV, it was everywhere. In some sense, TUF still pays my bills. I knew it would change my life.”
Bonnar is cornered by the legendary Carlson Gracie, Sr. Forrest is cornered by three rookies. The fight starts without a glove touch. Both men have come to prove that they are more than reality TV creations. They both want a place in the sport. It’s a back and forth affair, and neither man is backing down. Forrest believes that Bonnar is the better boxer, and, in true Forrest fashion, he aims to find out. The crowd can sense that this will be a fight to remember.
Forrest writes his fight resume one brawl at a time. When he started training, it was just a way to stave off the monotony of college and the boredom of living in Athens. Fighting was a way to get closer to people without ever getting too close, a way to share something with like minded people. His life was a balancing act of letting people in and keeping them out. Everyone in Athens was Forrest’s friend, but nobody really knew him. Even today, other than his wonderful wife Jamie, I am not sure anyone knows the real Forrest. “What you see on TV is me,” he says. “But it’s only one part of me. Let’s say it’s about 14.7% of me, if you do the math. The more exposure I have, the better chance there is for people to see me mess up. It’s a lot of pressure trying to make someone’s day.”
Two years after winning TUF, Forrest won a battle of the top contenders with a dominant performance over former PRIDE Champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Early in his career, Forrest understood that because he did not have a world-class background in wrestling, BJJ, or kickboxing, he would have to win his fights with heart, desire, and hard work. Forrest describes himself as “Jon Fitch without the wrestling.” About his style, he says, “I keep it simple and lose myself in technique.” UFC legend and training partner Randy Couture calls Forrest the hardest worker he has ever met. This tireless work ethic has taken a devastating toll on his body. Shortly after the Shogun fight, Forrest had his second of three shoulder surgeries. Broken feet and hands and a bad back would become the norm.
Round two starts the same way round one ended, toe-to-toe. Forrest always wants to please the fans, and it’s estimated that more than three million are now watching. A Bonnar jab early in the round opens a cut on Forrest’s nose that nearly stops the fight. Forrest is looking a step slower. The momentum has shifted in Bonnar’s favor, and I wait for the ref to wave off the fight. But, like always, Forrest survives.
After a successful stint as a coach on TUF 7, Forrest fought Quinton “Rampage” Jackson for the UFC Light Heavyweight Title. Griffin won a unanimous decision victory and became the UFC Champion. Forrest had reached heights other fighters only dream about: champion, actor, spokesman, and best selling author. Then he lost his first title defense to Rashad Evans.
“In MMA, you pay dearly for little mistakes,” Forrest says. “The crown is heavy. Being the champ is a big responsibility. Everyone is gunning for you. However, I would love to do it again. It’s not about being the best in the world, just being the best that night, against the right guy, for 25 minutes.”
Minus his belt, plus a healed broken hand, Forrest acted like a true champion and asked to fight the best fighter in the world, Anderson Silva. Forrest lost to Silva by TKO in round one. An emotional Forrest ran out of the cage, completely dejected.
“Losing to Silva was tough because I felt good going in,” Forrest says. “I had a good camp, and I was in a good place mentally. I just never got started in that fight. I’m always a slow starter, but by the time I was ready to start, I was already dazed.” For the first time in his career, Forrest had been defeated twice in a row. “The thing that I thought could never happen, happened that night. I had quit mentally. It makes you question everything.” Within two fights, Forrest had gone from the pinnacle to the pits.
Standing ready for the start of round three, tired, beaten, and bloody, Forrest manages to smile. Forrest loves these moments. When it is time to rise up and claim his prize, Forrest does it. The final bell rings, and both men have nothing left to give. Team Griffin stands in the cage awaiting a decision that we are less than sure of. The decision is read. Forrest is the winner. A new star is born, and his life and the UFC are changed forever.
Forrest and Jamie married shortly after the Silva fight. When an opportunity arose to avenge his controversial decision loss to Tito Ortiz, he jumped at the chance, winning a three round decision. Another shoulder surgery would take him out of the game for more than a year. During that time, Forrest lost his best friend John Grantham—one of the men in his corner on that fateful night back in 2005.
“Losing John was tough,” says Forrest. “He was always there for me—friend, pad holder, sparring partner, bodyguard, personal assistant, everything. I can’t help but think I could have done more for him.” John was a very spiritual person, and “I was always an X-Files agnostic—I knew the truth was out there.” Now, Forrest’s finds solace in his renewed faith. “It comforts me and makes me a better person.”
Forrest’s most recent fight was a victory against another UFC legend and former champion, Rich Franklin. It was a gritty win that propelled him back into the contender picture. The picture is far from clear, and Forrest knows that he can’t fight forever.
“About a month before every fight, my body just says QUIT. But then a few weeks after a fight, I’m ready to do it again,” he says. “Even as I start to lose some of my physical tools, I can make up for it with experience and my mental game. My body and the sport will tell me when it’s time to give it up.”
As for what life holds for Forrest after fighting, he has talked about acting, philanthropy, broadcasting, and religious studies. He knows he can’t escape the shadow of TUF, but he’s not running from it, either. “Sometime I feel like Mark Hamill after Star Wars,” he says. However, all of those things are on the backburner until Forrest is done doing the one thing he has always loved—fighting. For Forrest Griffin, his career is still a work in progress.