Fight marketing is all about telling stories, and Saturday night’s UFC 106 main event between Forrest Griffin and Tito Ortiz has remarkable similarities to the fight that stole the show this past week in Manchester, England, between Michael Bisping and Denis Kang.
Athens, Ga. Native Griffin and Britain's Bisping are both former winners of The Ultimate Fighter reality show who are two of the most popular fighters in their respective home countries.
Both men have appeal that goes beyond the level of their fighting abilities. Griffin was the gutsy "B" level fighter who had the first classic MMA battle on U.S. television that the majority of a new fan base saw in his 2005 fight with Stephan Bonnar. Bisping was the native star when UFC was introduced in a big way to the British public.
Griffin, like Bisping, walked into a slaughter this past summer. Griffin was given a one-sided beating like never before in his career on Aug. 8, when he was knocked down three times and stopped in just 3:23 in serving as a highlight reel for Anderson Silva. After the loss, Griffin ran from the ring to the back and disappeared from public view for a while. Bisping suffered every bit as brutal a knockout a few weeks earlier at the hands of Dan Henderson at UFC 100.
Both were brought back against a fighter near the top of their divisions a few years ago as they struggling to reclaim ground. Bisping put on the performance of his career and put his career back on track in finishing Kang, who was until recently considered one of the world's best middleweights.
"You know when these guys lose you got to get back on the horse, especially Forrest," said UFC president Dana White. "Forrest is a real emotional guy and you know he didn’t take that loss easily. He wasn’t Forrest after that fight, and I think it’s better to jump right back in there and fight again then sit around and commiserate for however many months until you fight again."
The Ortiz-Griffin main event, a meeting between two former UFC light heavyweight champions and a rematch of a classic 2006 brawl, was the end result of a chain of injuries and issues that effected Saturday night's card at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.
Ortiz was originally scheduled to face Mark Coleman as the semifinal match underneath Brock Lesnar vs. Shane Carwin for the heavyweight title. But the card lost Lesnar to a well-documented illness, and thus Carwin, as well as Coleman (injury), Ricardo Almeida (injury) and Jon Fitch (Almeida's scheduled opponent, who was placed on a later show instead). Then Thursday, one of the key fights, Karo Parisyan vs. Dustin Hazelett, fell apart because Parisyan pulled out without giving much of a logical explanation.
Coleman’s injury, in retrospect, ended up being a fortunate break, because Ortiz vs. Griffin is a significantly stronger match in the main event position, especially since Griffin was summoned from his honeymoon to train for the fight.
"I was coming down the mountains from my honeymoon and he (White) said, 'You fight Tito,'" said Griffin. "And I said, 'Well let’s do it December 12 [at UFC 107], give me a little more time.'
"And then he called me back the next day and he said, 'It’s November 21.' I said, 'That’s fine, let’s do it,' and I cut my honeymoon short and just drove back and started training right then."
For Griffin (16-6), in facing Ortiz (15-6-1), he’s going back to the fight that made the fight world take him seriously as a headliner. In losing a close and hotly debated split decision at UFC 59, Griffin forced people to take him as a legitimate star as opposed to a reality show winner who seemed destined at the time to be a very popular undercard fighter.
For Ortiz, Saturday’s fight is nothing short of deja vu. Ortiz, after a falling out with UFC management, returned after a year's absence to headline against Griffin. This time, Ortiz is returning to the UFC after sitting on the sidelines for a year and a half.
Ortiz has talked endlessly about his injuries the first time they squared off. Ortiz went into the fight with a partially torn ACL and MCL in his left knee and the chronic back pain he’d had for nearly three years from a bulging disc in his lower back.
Griffin, on the other hand, hasn’t said one word in the buildup to this fight about how he injured his ankle badly two weeks before their first fight, and how there was fear during that period he was going to have to pull out.
Nor did Griffin talk about his own empathy that may have cost him the fight, as in the third round, after kicking Ortiz in his heavily taped up left knee, he heard a popping sound. He noted after the fight that at that point he made the decision not to potentially ruin Ortiz’s career, and avoided kicking the knee.
"It certainly didn’t help me, or didn’t hurt me," Griffin, 30, said in hindsight about the first match. "I mean, it was a loss, but I showed up and I survived some adversity there in the beginning, getting just beaten and I kind of came back and held my own towards the end. So it was definitely kind of a wake-up for me and people like, people like that underdog story. People like to see a struggle, so yes, it didn’t hurt me as far as fans go."
The first Ortiz vs. Griffin fight started with Ortiz as the huge favorite with the audience, since it was the company’s debut in Anaheim, Calif., near Huntington Beach, where Ortiz lived most of his life.
Ortiz gave Griffin a beating in the first round, taking him down and making hamburger meat out of his face with elbows and punches. A badly bleeding Griffin survived, came back and turned the crowd onto his side, and won the second round.
The third round, which could have gone either way, made the difference. Griffin was more aggressive for most of the round, stopping every takedown attempt, and landing more, but Ortiz had the two best punches of the round. Ortiz got a takedown with 1:25 left, although didn’t do a lot of damage with it. Griffin escaped from the bottom, and landed a flurry in the last 25 seconds.
Griffin’s heart in the fight and fiery comeback saw the crowd turn for him and actually end up heavily booing the hometown fighter, a rarity. The place exploded when the big screens showed announcer Eddie Bravo’s scorecard of 29-28 for Griffin. Those cheers turned to overwhelming boos when after two judges split, Cecil Peoples’ score of 29-27 for Ortiz was read.
"There’s a little bit to be gleaned from it," said Griffin. "Tendencies don’t tend to change. But obviously, it was a long time ago. I’m a lot different. I’m sure Tito’s a lot different, so you want to take what it (watching the tape of the first fight) has to offer, but with a grain of salt."
Clearly Griffin has improved greatly since that fight. He’s bigger, stronger, a better wrestler, and has better footwork standing. Ortiz, now 34, is older, but claims that because of his back surgery from last year, he’s going into a fight pain-free for the first time in six years. He’s noted he’s been able to do squats and leg presses and has regained the power in his lower body that the injury kept him from having in the first fight.
"The last six years I haven’t been able to squat at all," noted Ortiz, who fights for the first time in 19 months and feels the added lower body power will enable him to complete the takedowns that his game was all about during his championship years from 2000-2003. "I haven’t been able to lunge and able to do this now with a lot of weight is nice, you know, squatting with 305."
"Now I have strong legs I’m just excited because I am able to wrestle the way I used to wrestle and to punch the way I used to punch."
- Tito Ortiz
- Forrest Griffin
- Michael Bisping