The first time Forrest Griffin clashed with Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, it did not figure to be a good night for him.
Griffin (18-6) was one of UFC’s most popular fighters at the time, perhaps second to only Chuck Liddell, based on winning the first season of "The Ultimate Fighter" and his now-legendary final fight with Stephan Bonnar. He had an aw-shucks charm and self-deprecating humor that connected with the audience.
Liddell was the biggest star simply because he was the company’s badass knockout specialist. Nobody really saw Griffin as a top-tier fighter. A good fighter, sure, proficient in every area yet not elite was how he would describe himself. Nobody expected him to become a world champion or beat the top names in the sport. He was just a guy people liked to see fight because he was scrappy and gave his all.
Rua (19-5), on the other hand, was considered the best light heavyweight in the world by most, ranked No. 1 in the majority of the polls at the time. A win over Griffin, largely considered inevitable, was step one before he got the UFC light heavyweight title. He eventually held the title, but so did Griffin.
Rua, 29, is a product of the violent Chute Boxe team from Curatiba, Brazil, among the dominant gyms of the prior decade. He made his name winning Pride’s 2005 middleweight (205 pounds, the same as the current light heavyweight division) Grand Prix. He beat, in succession, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, the light heavyweight version of Alistair Overeem and Ricardo Arona. Not only that, he finished all but Nogueira, winning with a violent nonstop striking style of punches, kicks, and moves like stomps and soccer kicks legal in Japan at the time. He was talked of at the time as a potential all-time great, having won 13 of his prior 14 bouts before meeting Griffin, the one loss a fluke when he broke his arm in the opening seconds of a fight with heavyweight Mark Coleman.
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But in Rua’s first UFC fight, on Sept. 22, 2007, in a battle that went back-and-forth, Griffin choked Rua out with 15 seconds left in the fight. In hindsight many have credited the upset to Rua not being in his best condition due to knee problems that required surgery. Griffin took over when Rua gassed out in the second round, and Griffin was on the verge of taking the decision. But Griffin came in with his own problems – a painful shoulder injury he hadn't revealed – and was fighting practically with one arm.
It was a big day for Griffin, as the major upset springboarded him into a title fight with Jackson, which he also won via decision. He ranks it No. 3 on his list of accomplishments, behind winning "The Ultimate Fighter" and winning the light heavyweight title.
On Saturday night, at the first UFC event ever held in Rio de Janeiro, the two meet for a second time in an attempt to break out of a logjam of former champions looking for a title opportunity.
Right now, the big three in the division are champion Jon Jones, next contender Jackson, who gets his shot on Sept. 24 in Denver, and No. 1 contender Rashad Evans, another former champion.
The next tier is three other former champions: Rua, Griffin and Lyoto Machida. Dan Henderson, the Strikeforce light heavyweight champion, if he’s moved over to UFC, could be added to that list.
"There’s no doubt Shogun is one of the best in the world," said UFC president Dana White. "He’s probably two fights away from being considered again [for a title shot]. It depends. You got to see how the fights go. There’s just so many other factors that come into play."
Rua, as former champion, and Griffin, coming off wins over former champions Tito Ortiz and Rich Franklin in his last two fights, are in a tough position regarding what has been UFC’s hot-potato belt. Both men have to be able to convince fans they would be able to hang with Jones, which won’t be easy since Jones has looked untouchable. So with so many prospective contenders out there, it can be argued they need more than just close decision wins. And with so many fighters near the top, and names like Alexander Gustafsson and Phil Davis on the way up, the man who loses may have his championship hopes ended, permanently.
"Well, actually I don’t think about that, I only think about giving my best performance and winning this fight," said Rua, through interpreter Eduardo Alonso. "I don’t think about the worst case scenario. I don’t think what bad can come out of this fight. I only think of what I can achieve, what I can conquer, and that’s where I put my effort on."
Jones was dominant in winning the title from Rua, beating him badly at his own striking game. Griffin, on the other hand, is fighting to regain the luster he had before an even more brutal demolition at the hands of Anderson Silva in 2009. And in recent years, both men have been plagued by injuries. Rua had multiple knee operations that have limited him to three trips to the Octagon in the last two years. Griffin has had multiple injuries to his foot, continued shoulder problems that required surgery, and a broken hand. He’s fought through most of those injuries, but still has only had two bouts in the previous two years.
"Well, obviously we always get sad with all the losses we suffer," Rua said. "But as athletes, we have to be used to it. I mean, we have to deal with it and we have to go through it.
"Obviously Forrest is a very good fighter. He’s a top fighter, and being a top fighter, I knew that I could fight him again eventually. I think he’s a fighter that evolved a lot, that got a lot better since our last fight. So did I. … He goes in there to give fans a fight, and I’m pretty much the same. I’m always there to finish a fight."
It’s been eight years, Rua’s third fight as a pro, since he fought in his home country and knocked out Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos. . It was his only fight ever in Rio, which it can be argued is the birthplace of the sport.
Rua, as a fan, was aware of MMA’s legacy when he started training, but the sport was banned in the city.
"I always liked it and unfortunately when I was a kid, there was a lot of prejudice toward fighting in Brazil and MMA," said Rua. "People didn’t really understand it, and to see it be understood and really growing to the point where we are now, where we can say we are at the top of the game, really reaching mainstream here, is a great feeling. It really means a lot to all of us to see that UFC comes here. It’s pretty much the pinnacle of all that."
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