Forrest Through The Trees

I seldom panic. But with 10:00 a.m. rapidly approaching, and me far from where I’m supposed to be, beads of sweat begin forming on my brow. I slam my foot down on the gas, cursing myself for taking the Tahoe in lieu of something faster. You see, I’m a punctual guy. And when I make a commitment, I honor it. So when Fight! magazine’s illustrious managing editor, Matt Brown, informed me that I’d be penning this issue’s cover story on Forrest Griffi n, I set every timepiece I owned two hours ahead. No friggin’ way was I gonna show up late for the interview. I saw what Forrest did to Raw Vegas VP Eric Newby for the latter’s tardy arrival to a pre-arranged Q & A. For all you cave dwellers who didn’t see the incident on YouTube, or read about it on the MMA forums, the punishment Forrest doled out—a run-of-the-mill leg kick to the thigh—gave Newby a hairline fracture of his femur. Not wanting to discover fi rst-hand what Forrest would do for an encore if I were late—disemboweling and decapitation came to mind—I planned on being very freakin’ early for our meeting. But because I accidentally plugged a buckwheat address into my SUV’s nav system, that defi nitely wasn’t gonna happen. Now, I just want to get there on time.

I call Forrest, tell him where I am, and cringe when I hear him laugh. “Ah man, you’re not even close,” he says, or words to that effect. Shit!

He repeats his address and I re-map. The instant I hang up, I throw the big Chevy into a rubber-screaming 180. The illicit maneuver yields a dozen horn honks—along with some expletive-laced instructions about what I should do to my mother—but that pales in comparison to what Forrest would do to me. My late arrival would catalyze a domino effect causing him to be late to his shoulder rehab session, and that spelled doom for yours truly. I begin to wonder how I might conduct an interview with a broken jaw. Writing out the questions is always an option, assuming he doesn’t hack off my hand for shits and giggles. Fortunately, the God of Traffi c is still asleep, and I make it to Forrest’s gated community with only seconds to spare.

Long before Forrest was doling out beatings, he was walking a beat, working as a police offi cer while pursuing a criminal justice degree at the University of Georgia. The career choice would seem an ideal fi t for a man with an unfl inching moral compass, tireless work ethic, and a great sense of humor—Southern Gentlemanly traits that have served Forrest well. It was at the police academy, during a lesson on defensive tactics via the Gracie Grapple System, that an instructor showed Forrest a UFC video. The course of Forrest’s life was altered forever.

Shortly thereafter, Forrest began training at The Hardcore Gym in Athens, Georgia— one of the preeminent mixed martial arts schools in the Southeast—under the tutelage of owners Adam and Rory Singer. Interestingly enough, Griffi n didn’t fancy himself much of an athlete, an odd contradiction given the fact that he could have walked onto the U. of Georgia’s perennial powerhouse Division I football team.

Says Rory Singer: “Forrest is a great athlete. Physically, he has all the tools. He’s got great octagon awareness and he’s smart, too—smarter than he’d have you believe. And when he fi ghts, he does so with a total lack of self-preservation. Few fi ghters have that capacity. He literally fi ghts every fi ght as if it’s his last.”

Amassing a 6-0 amateur record in rapid fashion, Forrest made the quantum leap to the professional ranks. His pro debut—for which he earned a whopping $250—took place on October 27, 2001, in Georgia’s Bell Auditorium, the fi nal bout on Reality Superfi ghting’s “New Blood Confl ict” card. His opponent: MMA legend and future UFC Hall of Famer Dan “The Beast” Severn. Talk about jumping straight into the fi re. Although Forrest lost the fi ght via unanimous decision, he took the defeat in stride.

“I didn’t do enough to win. Didn’t take any chances, just tried to tease him [Forrest called him Tom Selleck during the fi ght] into slugging it out, fi ghting my fi ght. The strategy didn’t work and I lost.”

Severn, who can’t recall the exact details of their bout (with well over 100 pro fi ghts, who could blame him?), says: “I’m glad I had the opportunity to fi ght Forrest in his pro debut and not the Forrest Griffi n of today, or the outcome might have been different.”

Forrest didn’t waste any time climbing back into the cage. He took his second pro fi ght less than a month later on the Dark Continent. “Pride and Honor” was the organization, South African Wiehan Lesh the opponent. But only moments into the bout, Forrest dislocated his shoulder. What should have been another loss, however, became a demonstration of the Robocop approach: “To stop me, you’ll have to kill me.” Forrest’s aforementioned “complete lack of self-preservation” was being put on display for all to see. He continued to fi ght with only one good arm, and eventually managed to end the contest by a rear naked choke later in the round.

Building on that win, Forrest went on a tear, ripping off an impressive string of seven victories, including a hard-fought, four-round decision over monstrously powerful wrestler/grappler Jeff “The Snowman” Monson at the World Extreme Fighting Championships, and a fi rst-round triangle choke submission victory against Team Quest standout Chael Sonnen at the IFC’s pyramid-like “Global Domination.” The fi ght with Sonnen led to a contest against seasoned MMA veteran Jeremy Horn later that evening. The fi rst round of the semi-fi nal bout with the wily Horn was an up-tempo seesaw battle—a classic meld of brawler bravado and submission smarts. The second round was a virtual carbon copy of the fi rst until, with a little over a minute to go, Forrest got caught with a perfectly placed head kick that knocked him out.

While the fi ght was insanely entertaining, Forrest’s post-fi ght comments are in retrospect even more so, given his current status as the UFC’s top-ranked light-heavyweight contender. “I’d rather get knocked out in grand fashion than lose a decision where I fought smart,” Forrest said. “I’m never gonna be one of the top level guys, so I don’t worry about wins and losses.” Hmmm.

Three months later, Forrest was in Natal, Brazil, battling Edson Paredao at the Heat Fighting Championships. Taking on a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu expert in Brazil was a tall order; apparently, the MMA Gods thought Forrest needed even greater odds stacked against him. Shortly into the fi ght, Paredao broke Forrest’s left arm. Once again, a loss should have been the outcome. But like before, Forrest refused to shut it down. He ended up knocking Paredao out with his good right hand.

Despite a respectable 9-2 record and growing legion of fans, Forrest pretty much had it with professional mixed martial arts. Physically and mentally spent, his arm on the mend, he was content to get on with his life. A career in law enforcement, his girlfriend—these were his priorities. The octagon was merely a distant shape in his memory. But then a unique opportunity presented itself.

Originally pitched to him as “The Real World for fi ghters,” Forrest wasn’t sure if he was interested. “I had other things going on, I was thinking about moving to Virginia with this girl… Life was crazy at the time,” Forrest says. “So I called a friend, had him talk me into going.”

Fortunately, Forrest is a good listener. He threw caution to the wind and fl ew to Las Vegas for the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter. There he would share a house with future UFC standouts, such as: Nate “The Rock” Quarry, Mike “Quick” Swick, Chris “The Crippler” Leben, Kenny “KenFlo” Florian, Josh “Kos” Koshcheck, Sam “The Alaskan Assassin” Hoger, Diego “Nightmare” Sanchez, Alex “The Assassin” Karalexis, and Stephan “The American Psycho” Bonnar. A member of Team Liddell, Forrest trained under the Iceman’s watchful eyes, garnering tips from one of the blood sport’s most proven talents.

Forrest’s stock rose with the airing of each episode—within the MMA community and outside of it—courtesy of the show’s widespread reality TV audience. And while his fi ghting chops were obvious, it was Forrest’s off-the-mat antics that really created a buzz: that goofy Howdy-Doody smile, congenial charm, and devil-may-care demeanor. If there was anyone in the fi ght game that could enter and leave the cage with a smile on his face, regardless of the outcome, it was Forrest Griffi n. At any rate, it was Forrest’s opponents who usually left the arena unhappy.

And Forrest certainly made the most of his opportunity. In his fi rst TUF fi ght (Episode #9), Forrest made Schoenauer tap out from strikes in round one. In Forrest’s second fi ght (Episode #12), Hoger was the victim, losing by TKO in round two. Stephan Bonnar had also won his two preliminary light-heavyweight bouts (beating Southworth and Swick), setting the stage for what would ultimately be called one of the greatest fi ghts in UFC history.

On April 9, 2005, the two squared off in the Cox Pavilion. At stake was far more than bragging rights—a $10,000 watch, a new Scion Xb, and the mother of all rewards: a six-fi gure UFC fi ght contract. Griffi n and Bonnar did not disappoint; they waged an all-out war for the entire 15-minute fi ght. After three bone-jarring, fl esh-shredding rounds, everyone in attendance was on his feet. And it’s a safe bet that the entire home audience was, too. By the end, both men were exhausted, covered in blood, and anxious to hear the decision.

“Renzo Gracie’s mentality is that no man is gonna break him in fi fteen or twenty minutes,” Forrest says. “That works for me.” He then compares his own fi ghting mindset to that of pirates during the Golden Age of piracy. “I read somewhere that, before pirates went into battle, they would destroy all the lifeboats. They were making it clear that they were either going to win or they were going to die.”

By now, we all know the result. Because Bonnar had left it all on the mat, and given the fans something to talk about for years to come, UFC President Dana White awarded him the second six-fi gure contract. But the night really belonged to Forrest Griffi n.

Please forgive the Gump-ism, but the movie’s most famous line fi ts Forrest better than an Affl iction Tshirt, and I simply couldn’t resist. Driving through the security gate, I am shocked by what I fi nd. When it comes to successful fi ghters’ homes, expansive mansions and wild dens of debauchery— straight out of MTV Cribs—are the norm. However, Griffi n’s house is a modest twostory that reeks of comfort and sensibility. The interior mirrors the exterior: no gaudy artwork or alpha-male stripper pole, just a tasteful mix of cozy furnishings and elegant accents, highlighted by a Christmas tree with cutesy ornaments.

As for the master of the house, I already have a notion of what to expect. Most, if not all, of the professional fi ghters I’ve interviewed over the years have had an air of superiority about them, a ‘tough guy setting’ forever dialed up to the max. They made it crystal clear that they kicked the shit out of people for a living, and that spending any time in their presence was a luxury. But Forrest Griffi n is decidedly different. In fact, if not for his caulifl ower ears, a smattering of scars, and the fact that I’ve seen him absolutely dismantle people inside the Octagon, he’d easily pass for a greeter at some posh restaurant or luxury hotel.

When I fi rst meet Forrest, he’s scarfi ng down scrambled eggs to accompany the 50 or so pounds of vitamin pills he’s just swallowed. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but if you saw the supplements Forrest hordes like precious gemstones in the cavernous walk-in closet of his bedroom, you’d understand. An insane amount of nutritional sustenance is required to maintain the physique necessary to compete at that ultra-high level, and to deal with the endless beatings the body suffers during training and fi ghts. Over the years, Forrest has come to know his strapping 6’3” frame the way a world-class jockey knows his racehorse, and his gastronomic intake refl ects that knowledge. Like most fi ghters, Forrest’s culinary decisions are usually based on necessity, not enjoyment. And Forrest LOVES to eat.

Soon I meet Jamie, Forrest’s fi ancée. Smart, sexy, congenial, and refreshingly low maintenance, she immediately reminds me of the saying: “Behind every good man, there’s a better woman.”

“She’s amazing,” Forrest opines, referring to Jamie’s non-frivolous prowess in decorating his recently purchased house. “Every time I get home she’s put another room together.”

That leads to a conversation about the one thing in this world that scares Forrest the most—having a child. “I’m absolutely terrifi ed of having a kid. And that’s because when kids come near me, they cry. They’re terrifi ed of me. But I know how much I love my girlfriend, and if I love my kid that much, I’ll be fi ne.”

I have a feeling there’s a bit of tonguein- cheek humor here. Forrest used to teach at a school for children suffering from severe behavioral and emotional disorders. According to unnamed sources, Forrest was exceptional at his job, easily one of the children’s favorite teachers.

After breakfast, we head into the garage, where I expect to fi nd an armored Hummer, a suspension-lifted pick-up truck, or perhaps an exotic sports car. I fi gured Forrest would splurge on a snazzy whip. The oversized toaster-on-wheels Scion Xb he received for winning TUF would not have been among my top 1,000 guesses.

I see a pattern forming, a pattern that perfectly corroborates statements by those who know Forrest well. For instance, Dana White: “Forrest still wears that same fuckin’ pleather-leather jacket he wore on TUF.” Or friend and former trainer Rory Singer: “Forrest still has some of the same clothes he wore in high school.” Keep in mind they’re not suggesting that Forrest is cheap. They’re saying he’s frugal. They’re saying he’s responsible. They’re saying he gets it.

“Money and fame haven’t changed Forrest one bit,” close friend Lucas Rakofsky states adamantly. “He’s the same guy, only now everyone knows who he is.”

Forrest takes it one step further. “Money allows me to be who I want to be,” he explains. “Now that my needs are met, I want to give to my family and friends, to the people who need it.”

Spend any time with Forrest, and it’s obvious he’s jazzed by his accomplishments, which the often self-deprecating fi ghter doesn’t fully believe he merits. On the fl ip side, the taste of victory has also opened up a major can of worms.

“Originally, I just wanted to get one win in the UFC,” Forrest explains. “But after I’d done that, it wasn’t enough. I wanted more. I wanted the belt.”

Less than two months after winning the TUF fi nale, Forrest made his “offi cial” UFC debut at UFC 53 Heavy Hitters against hardhitting Bill “The Butcher” Mahood, who was 11-2-1 at the time. Forrest overwhelmed Mahood, submitting him with a rear naked choke at 2:18 of the fi rst round. The next rung on Forrest’s ascent up the light-heavyweight ladder came at UFC 55 Fury, against Muay Thai/Machado/Jiu-Jitsu practitioner Elvis “The King of Rock’n’Rumble” Sinosic. Forrest dispatched Sinosic midway through round one with a fi sticuff-inspired TKO. Destiny was calling. So Forrest said goodbye Athens, Georgia, hello Las Vegas.

For Forrest, living in Sin City is almost anti-climactic. Celebrity-studded parties at strip clubs and VIP lounges have little appeal to him. He’s a nester of sorts, a closet intellectual who prefers staying home and reading a good book or watching TV shows like Dexter and Pushing Daisies, not tossing back shots and engaging in mindless banter into the wee hours.

“Vegas is good for me,” Forrest says. “For training, there are lots of fi ghters here. And off the mat, fi ghters hang with fi ghters. Vegas is home.”

These days, Forrest has put himself in a position to train just about anywhere he wants to, and with anyone he desires: Randy Couture at Xtreme Couture, Mike Whitehead at the Xyience Training Center… the list is long and distinguished. Whatever facet of the MMA game Forrest wants to explore—and at that level, it’s ALL of them—he has people to assist him.

But Forrest is a far cry from the tunnelvision tough-guy many other play-for-pay pugilists openly claim to be. Scan the pages of your favorite MMA publication (Fight! had better be it) or watch interviews with any of today’s best fi ghters, and you’ll discover that a vast majority make no bones about “eating, sleeping, and breathing” fi ghting. It’s their life, their one true love. Forrest has found a balance. And in his case, the “It’s not what I am, it’s just what I do” ideology really is gospel.

That’s not just some clever act by a man looking for the sentimental vote. Same goes for the “aw, shucks” grin he permanently sports. What you see is what you get. There is no hidden agenda. And that outlook applies equally to his demeanor inside the cage.

“Some guys need to get into a rage to psyche themselves up before a fi ght,” Forrest quips. “But for me, I simply care more about my needs than my opponent’s.”

Forrest is driving to his rehab session, post-op treatment for the surgery performed on his right shoulder to repair the torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, and torn biceps tendon, which have plagued him for quite some time, since long before the Shogun fi ght, where he was incorrectly rumored to have sustained the injuries. He slices across three lanes of traffi c without slowing to make an exit, unintentionally cutting off another vehicle. A bit embarrassed by the discourteous maneuver, he laughs it off and makes a quick analogy.

“Fighting is a lot like cutting someone off. It’s nothing personal—I’m just trying to get somewhere.”

Riding shotgun, I really wish Forrest had won a Ferrari—or maybe an Abrams tank—instead of that Scion. For that’s exactly how he drives it. Motorists in Vegas, however, should feel safe whenever Forrest is on the road. It’s the pedestrians on the sidewalks who should worry! Actually, inside the Scion is where it’s really dangerous. A variety of objects constantly fl y around when Forrest is at the wheel, among them: a Glock pistol; several knives (fi xed and lock blades); a full CD case; sponsor checks; energy drink cans; and his new, extremely lucrative UFC contract.

After Forrest’s grueling rehab session, which was exhausting just to watch, we embark on a quest to fi nd the perfect gift for his fi ancée—a Kitchen Aid mixer in stainless steel. As it turns out, it would have been easier to locate WMDs in Iraq. We eventually fi nd the unit at a Wal-Mart, though not in the proper color. Forrest buys it, anyway. But the clerk has forgotten to erase the anti-theft sensor on the box, and the shoplifting alarm sounds as we leave the store. Although everything is in order, Forrest, always the joker, decides to make a run for it.

From my conversation with the UFC’s Supreme Being, three things are readily apparent: 1) White thinks the world of Forrest Griffi n, both as a person and as a fi ghter. 2) White is fully cognizant of Forrest’s acrossthe- board appeal—from MMA junkies to soccer moms, and everyone in between. 3) White is, without question, the right guy to helm the UFC, as he’s got more fi re and passion about mixed martial arts—and the UFC’s role in the sport—than all the professional fi ghters combined.

Actor, comedian and UFC color commentator Joe Rogan—an MMA practitioner (Tae Kwon Do black belt and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu brown belt) and one of the sport’s most ardent fans—also weighed in: “What I really like about Forrest is that he’s smart, humble, and he doesn’t do things to get himself on TV.”

A UFC post-fi ght interviewer since 1997 and a cage-side fi xture since 2002, Joe has witnessed all of Forrest’s UFC bouts. “Forrest is tall, muscular and big for his [weight] class,” Joe observed. “He moves well, has great angles, and he fi ghts like a wild dog. Forrest is always impressive.”

The “Forrest factor” was vividly evident at UFC 59 Reality Check, where Forrest took on the heavily favored former lightheavyweight champion Tito “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” Ortiz. This was easily the biggest, most important fi ght of his career, and Forrest did just about everything he needed to do to win, but he lost via split decision. To this day, many believe Forrest deserved the victory. But other than the tally in the win/loss column, the decision was irrelevant; of primary importance was the fact that Forrest proved to everyone that he belonged among the UFC’s elite fi ghters.

A unanimous decision win in a wild rematch against Stephan Bonnar at UFC 62 got Forrest back into his winning ways. Then came UFC 66, and Keith “The Dean of Mean” Jardine. There’s no way to sugarcoat what happened inside the cage—Jardine stomped a mud-hole in Forrest, having KO’d him at 4:41 of the very fi rst round. In the MMA, wins and losses are all a part of the game. But it’s what happened outside the cage that had people talking—Forrest broke down crying, devastated by the outcome.

According to the forums and blogs— and even a few articles—many thought Forrest was being “overly dramatic,” and that he should simply “take his beating like a man.” But it’s not that simple. Forrest thought he had let his fans down. What’s more, he felt he had let himself down.

“Fighters are emotional,” says Rory Singer, a professional fi ghter and TUF alum (Episode #3), in addition to being a trainer. “Sometimes we cry, after losses and wins. In Forrest’s case, he knew what he lost in that fi ght and he wasn’t afraid to let it all out. And I had a new respect for him for it.”

Had it been up to Forrest, he would have been back in the cage four months later, at UFC 70, against Lyoto Machida. But a nasty staph infection kept him sidelined, much to his dismay.

“I wanted to fi ght,” Forrest says. “I actually felt I needed to fi ght, for me and for my fans.” He would get his next opportunity in Belfast, Ireland, at UFC 72, appropriately titled “Victory.” Forrest—whose image graces Mickey’s malt liquor cans—came out to the strains of “I’m Shipping Up To Boston,” by the Dropkick Murphys, and the arena went wild. Fueled by the crowd’s incredible energy, and his own non-stop drive, Forrest proved to be a man on a mission, winning the bout by unanimous decision.

Enter Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu expert, former PRIDE Fighting Champion and, at the time, ranked the number two pound-for-pound fi ghter in the world. Facing Rua would be a huge task for Forrest, one that many believed was insurmountable. All the bookmakers had Rua as a huge favorite.

Some years prior, Forrest had been asked about fi ghting Shogun. His response: “Yeah, that would be a good fi ght, but it might be a little out of my league right now.”

Ah, but that’s the beauty of mixed martial arts. Anything can happen at any time. And happen it did. Only, Forrest didn’t just win: He dominated. He took the best of everything Shogun had to offer, whether standing up or on the ground. The fact that Forrest won via submission, by rear naked choke no less (and won “Submission of the Night,” along with an extra $40K), against one of the most dangerous submission tacticians in the game, sent an ICBM-like message out to the rest of the light-heavyweight division: Forrest Griffi n is for real.

Now Forrest is coaching for this season’s installment of TUF, featuring light-heavyweight champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, whom Forrest will face for the belt at the show’s completion. Forrest’s teammates would be smart to soak up any and all wisdom he might impart, on the mat or off. After all, he’s been there. Knowing Forrest, he’ll require each member of his team to play a practical joke on a housemate, if only to ease the stress and tension that’s sure to develop—problems that Forrest learned to overcome. Just look where he is now!

But perhaps it’d be best if Forrest heeded a bit of advice from someone who knows him well. Says Rory Singer: “I believe the only thing Forrest needs to take his game to the next level is the self-confi dence that he is as good, if not better, than the other fi ghters in his division. Hopefully, he learned that during the Shogun fi ght. And if he does that, look out.”

At the end of our time together, I gather up my gear, thank Forrest for his hospitality, and ask him if there’s anything else he wants me to know—some interesting factoid that he feels would intrigue readers. Forrest fl ashes that famous Cheshire Cat grin. “I’ve only got one testicle,” he says, deadpan. Sorry I asked.

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