When most people think of Forrest Griffin, they think of his classic battle with Stephan Bonnar during the season finale of the first edition of The Ultimate Fighter. The fight is famous for not only being one of the sport’s best of all time, but also is credited with helping to give the UFC the push it needed to finally emerge as a mainstream sporting entity. Legend has it that MMA fans took to the phones that night in April 2005 to tell their friends to turn on Spike TV because there was an incredible fight taking place. Griffin would emerge victorious after three breathtaking rounds, beginning a journey that would ultimately lead to him being one of the most famous and recognizable faces in the sport. Whatever would come next, though, people will always associate Griffin with that tremendous light heavyweight bout.

Unfortunately, that fight took place about two years before I really started paying attention to the UFC. In April 2005, I was finishing up my sophomore year of college and still (ignorantly) regarded MMA as more of a barbaric sideshow. It wasn’t until later in college when a friend hipped me to Fedor Emelianenko and the glory that was Pride FC that I realized it was actually the most exciting sport in the world…and it wasn’t until after college that I actually had enough money to purchase my first UFC pay-per-view. That’s why, for me, the name Forrest Griffin conjures up memories of a different fight—one that took place about two years after his famous contest with Bonnar and one that would catapult Griffin to the top of the 205-pound division.

Of course, I’m talking about his submission victory over Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at UFC 76.

Before their fight, Griffin and Rua were not thought by many to be in the same class of fighter. Coming into UFC 76, Rua was a light heavyweight wrecking machine. The winner of Pride’s 2005 Middleweight (205 pounds) Grand Prix, Rua owned victories over fellow elites Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Alistair Overeem. At the time, he was not only considered one of the best light heavyweights in the sport, but also one of the three or four best fighters in any division.

Griffin, on the other hand, was a respectable 5-2 in the UFC, but had done little since the extravaganza with Bonnar to distinguish himself among his peers. He held victories over guys like Bill Mahood and Hector Ramirez, neither of whom would fight in the UFC again, but losses to Tito Ortiz and Keith Jardine had hampered his progress. He was definitely the fan favorite in his fight with Rua, but not even his most dedicated supporters could have predicted the outcome.

In what could only be described as a (second) career-making performance for Griffin, he out-dueled the debuting Shogun, sinking in a rear-naked choke late in the third round to secure the victory. His unbridled happiness was evident as he sprung up from Rua’s back and ran, arms raised with joy, to his corner, creating in the process one of the iconic and indelible images in MMA history.

That win, more than his battle with Bonnar, marked Griffin not just as a popular fighter, but a damn good one, too. In his next fight, he would capture the UFC light heavyweight championship with a decision win over Rampage before losing it to Rashad Evans in his first defense. Unfortunately for Griffin, he would never again regain his place among the elite of the weight class, but his accrued popularity would still keep him at or near the top of the UFC cards on which he was scheduled.

Last Saturday, the UFC announced Griffin would be retiring after eight years fighting under its banner. Injuries had begun to catch up with Griffin, who has fought just three times since 2009, and the 33-year-old decided to walk away from the sport he helped so much to popularize. His legacy will not be as the most successful fighter in UFC history, but his participation in that TUF finale will, along with Bonnar, cement him as one of the most important fighters of his era. His spot in the UFC Hall of Fame is all but guaranteed, if not for his statistical greatness, then for his contributions to the sport both direct and indirect.

Even after Griffin had fallen beyond the realm of title contention in the UFC, the everyman qualities that make him so relatable to so many MMA fans sustained his drawing power, and in the same way that Chuck Liddell has remained a very visible spokesperson for the UFC and its ventures, Griffin will no doubt begin using his face exclusively for promotional purposes, as opposed to also using it as a moving target for elite mixed martial artists.

For me, those moments of pure elation Griffin showed after his win against Rua will be what I remember best. He’s a man who always fought with his heart on his sleeve and always did his best to leave fans with smiles on their faces. Forrest Griffin might not have been the most successful UFC fighter, but he sure was one of the most fun to watch.

Photo: Forrest Griffin (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.