There were days when Forrest Griffin didn’t want to talk. He wasn’t being snarky (well, maybe a little); it was just that he appeared to want the same level of dedication paid to his inquisitor’s art as he gave to his.
Bottom line, if he was asked a stupid question, he either gave a one-word answer back or something completely off the wall and unusable.
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But if he was asked a thoughtful, pertinent question – and no, ‘How’s training going?’ didn’t qualify – the questioner got gold from the Georgia product, who had a way of explaining life and the fight game that made complete sense, even if you never thought of it in quite the way he did.
“It’s one of those things where when you’re training and fighting, you can’t worry about your bills, your mortgage, did you get your girlfriend pregnant, your pet’s cancer, or anything,” he once told me when asked the appeal of fighting for him. “Nothing else matters but that dude trying to kick you in the face or throw you on your head or trying to rip your arm out of the socket. It becomes a singularity of purpose, which an ADD kid like me rarely gets. I like that moment of clarity in fights, and I truly have that. I lose myself in the details of those 15 minutes and you don’t worry about what people think of you.”
Griffin didn’t have to worry because those people loved him. From the time he entered everyone’s consciousness through the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, there was something about the self-effacing light heavyweight that stuck in everyone’s head. Yeah, he could fight, and if not for his three-round epic with Stephan Bonnar on the TUF Finale card in April of 2005, the UFC might look a lot different today. But it was how he did what he did that made an impact. He took a sport whose heroes always had a bit of a mystique about them and stripped that away.
I got to talking with Charles McCarthy, a UFC vet and current manager of several UFC fighters, about Griffin, and he captured his appeal succinctly without me even asking.
“With his personality, he was such a great person for the UFC to get behind,” McCarthy said. “He was the everyman. He represented what we all liked to think the positives are about ourselves. He did that for all of America, and then he had this great success. He became UFC champion, and with Forrest doing it, it felt like we could all do it. And that was one of those special moments in history where you may never see anything quite like that again.”
We may not.
Before he went on to pull off the trifecta of TUF winner, UFC champion, and UFC Hall of Famer, Griffin was considering retirement from the sport. He had a career in law enforcement in Georgia that he could pursue, and while he was a top prospect with a 9-2 record and wins over Jeff Monson and Chael Sonnen, you really couldn’t make a living by fighting at that time if you weren’t in the UFC.
Then the UFC came calling in the form of The Ultimate Fighter, and Griffin was the one who helped kicked off the MMA explosion in the United States. And as the fights piled up, he got bigger and bigger, even getting his own action figure.
“I remember when I was a kid, I would actually burn and rip my GI-Joes up,” he said at the time. “When they lost battles I would melt them and put my mom’s makeup on them for blood – I got in a lot of trouble for this by the way – and smash them if they had a car accident or something, and I can’t wait to see a Forrest Griffin doll beat up with some kid putting his mom’s red lip gloss over my face and breaking off one of my arms.”
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In the Octagon, Griffin was celebrated for his tenacity and willingness to lay it all on the line in search of victory. He didn’t always get his hand raised, but he always showed up to fight.
“It’s just a matter of scarcity of resources,” Griffin said. “You learn in economics about competition over limited resources. I’m pretty self-centered and I want what’s best for me. I need to win this fight, just like he does, and I understand that he’s going to do everything in his power to win it, and I certainly don’t resent that or hold it against him at all. I’m gonna do the same thing.”
That attitude meant Griffin pushed his body to the limit, and the result was a laundry list of injuries that forced him to retire in 2013. Two months later, he was in the UFC Hall of Fame. Not bad for someone who described his entrance to the UFC in 2005 as such:
“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.”