Griffin’s ascent hand-in-hand with UFC

LAS VEGAS – Only weeks after accepting an offer to appear on a new reality television series, Forrest Griffin had second thoughts. He didn’t show up for the first day of filming for The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC owners’ last-ditch effort to save the company.

UFC was mired in $44 million of debt and close to going under. UFC president Dana White and owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta gambled that the reality series would introduce the sport to a skeptical public.

“I called him and begged him to please get to Las Vegas,” White said of Griffin, who went on to win the first season by defeating Stephan Bonnar in the finale in one of the epic bouts in UFC history.

And on Saturday, Griffin validated his decision to turn his back on a police career and become a full-time fighter by edging Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in a back-and-forth battle to win the UFC light heavyweight title.

“It’s great to win, but the only thing that sucks is that I’ll have to fight Quinton again,” the irreverent Griffin said after thrilling a sellout crowd of 11,172 with the unanimous decision victory.

Both men paid a heavy price for their battle, which earned them an additional $60,000 bonus for the Fight of the Night and what may turn out to be the Fight of the Year. Griffin had a deep gash over his right eye that needed stitches to close, while Jackson needed trainer Juanito Ibarra’s assistance to navigate a couple of steps as the result of repeated kicks to the left shin from Griffin.

The crowd Saturday was roaring from the moment Griffin appeared on the video screens and rarely quieted during a fight in which the combatants exchanged punches, elbows, kicks and slams in a brutally physical bout.

It is less than five years since the day when UFC chairman Lorenzo Fertitta, frustrated by the mounting debts, called White and asked him to try to sell the company. After a couple of days, White met Fertitta in his office and told him he could get $3 million for it.

Only three years earlier, the Fertittas and White had paid $2 million to acquire the UFC from SEG.

“I told Dana I wanted to go home and sleep on it, because I don’t like to make rash decisions,” Lorenzo Fertitta said. “I woke up early the next morning, around 6 o’clock, and called Dana and said, ‘I’m not willing to give up. I still believe in this thing.’ We’ll make this thing work yet.”

Shortly thereafter, the trio came up with the idea of The Ultimate Fighter.

“That was our Trojan horse to get onto TV,” White said.

And Griffin made the decision pay off, winning over legions of fans with his dry wit, an “aw shucks” personality and ability to absorb tremendous amounts of punishment and keep on going.

Jackson delivered plenty of punishment on Saturday, knocking Griffin down twice in a fast first round. A crushing right uppercut floored Griffin, just as Jackson had done to Chuck Liddell when he won the title last year at UFC 71.

But Griffin, who cried in the cage after a loss to Keith Jardine at UFC 66, managed to stand in to everything Jackson threw at him.

“Every (expletive) punch hurt,” Griffin said. “A lot.”

He doled out his fair share of pain, as well, however. He kept firing low kicks at Jackson’s left leg, which began to bother him late in the first round.

After a pair of kicks in the second, Jackson collapsed in a heap and spent most of the round flat on his back. That put a huge dent in Jackson’s plan, because he had intended to try to go for the stoppage in the second.

“I started picking it up and I was going to go for it, go for the gusto, because I didn’t want him to get out of the second round,” Jackson said. “That’s when I was going to go for it. He kicked me in the leg and hurt my leg and that’s what messed me up.”

Jackson could barely get up to go back to the stool after the second, but he fought brilliantly in what turned out to be the critical third round.

Griffin circled and moved much of the round and Jackson was unable to catch him and land a decisive blow.

That round was probably the one that gave Griffin the championship, because all three judges scored it for him. It was a round the Jackson side thought belonged in its column. “How can Quinton not win that fight?” Ibarra said. “You had to give him the first, third and fourth. If you give (Griffin) the third, man, I don’t know how you can do that.

“Rampage brought it to him and you have to take the fight away from the champion. He did not take that fight from Rampage.”

Few men in the world could have taken it from him on Saturday, but Griffin is one of those. In his last outing, he upset Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at UFC 76, submitting the man then regarded by many as one of the two three pound-for-pound fighters in the world.

In his next bout, he beat Jackson, who had seemed to establish himself as the world’s finest 205-pounder after convincing wins over Liddell and ex-PRIDE champion Dan Henderson.

For years, as White touted The Ultimate Fighter as a great breeding ground, he was criticized by many for overhyping it. Matt Serra came off the reality show to win the welterweight title earlier, but Serra already had an impressive UFC record before he went onto the show.

Griffin was a virtual unknown when he finally agreed to appear on the series. His win on Saturday, and the September victory over Rua, validated the series.

And Saturday’s raucous, lively crowd seemed to validate the sport’s growth. It’s not noisier, or more enthusiastic, at an NBA Finals game.

Lorenzo Fertitta could hardly believe what he was seeing on Saturday. He remembered back to the dark days when the end of the UFC was near and had difficulty believing that only about four years later things had changed so dramatically.

“Surreal is absolutely a great way to explain things,” Fertitta said. “We were struggling so badly. One of the interesting things, and we predicted this, was that if we ever made it and became truly big, everybody would say, ‘The UFC was an overnight success.’ We all laughed about it. There was some tough sledding there.

“People have short memories. It was a long, hard haul and it was a lot of tough times. I want to say I always believed it would be what it was tonight, but I had no idea what the magnitude could become. But there’s no doubt, this was an amazing night for this sport.”

Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Jul 6, 2008