This past weekend, in the wake of UFC 160, former UFC Light Heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin announced his retirement from MMA. It's an announcement that had been a long time coming, but also one that, frankly, is not getting nearly the attention it deserves.
First off, let's run down the resume. Griffin is a former UFC Light Heavyweight champion. He won that gold from Rampage Jackson at a time before Rampage had begun to fall off. In addition to Rampage, he holds wins over Shogun Rua, Tito Ortiz, Rich Franklin, and Chael Sonnen. And of course, he's the champion from the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. That championship win in his epic clash with Stephan Bonnar has become the stuff of legend - a fight that almost single-handedly saved the UFC, and a classic whose mythology has only grown over time. He's also had crossover success, with two successful books and various small acting roles. That resume alone means his retirement is a big deal.
But in many ways, that's all irrelevant. Because what really matters about Forrest Griffin is his relationship with MMA fans. That's what defined his career - for good and for bad.
I suspect that my personal path of fandom with Forrest is similar to many other UFC fans. Once upon a time, I was a huge Forrest Griffin fan - there was a period where he was my favorite fighter in the world, hands down. The win over Shogun, the first fight with Tito, the Bonnar fight (obviously) - these still stand among my favorite fights of all time.
In recent years, that changed. I struggled to care about his more recent fights, which was no surprise as it was obvious Forrest himself was struggling to care. His "Aw shucks I'm just a tough underdog!" persona began to fade away, replaced by a grumpy veteran. There are two real moments that led to this decline. One is obvious, but still, it needs to be said:
Anderson Silva retired Forrest Griffin. Sure, he had 4 more fights, but he was never the same - not by a long shot. That beating took all the fight out of the live dog that was Forrest Griffin, and watching him afterwards was often painful.
But even before the Silva slaughter, cracks in his popularity had started to show. Ironically, they began at the moment of Forrest's greatest triumph - his win over Rampage. Before that fight, Forrest was the ultimate underdog. That's what made his win over Shogun so sweet - no one thought he had a chance, including Forrest. The exuberance with which he runs away from the fallen Shogun is a moment that truly captures the essence of what made him great; it's everything right about combat sports in a single moment.
At his best, Forrest was a throwback to the old days of the UFC, when a man didn't need to be the most skilled, he just needed the most heart. Forrest was indeed skilled (deceptively so), but he embraced the everyman persona. He was the proxy for the fans - their way of seeing someone just like them get in there and win (a position vastly aided by his win on TUF).
The trouble is, what happens when the underdog is no longer the underdog? What happens when he becomes the favorite? That's what happened after the title win, and you can see the change almost immediately. Compare the somewhat smug look Griffin gives when he is being given the title by Dana White to the Shogun celebration, and you see a world of difference. Once he won the belt, Griffin was no longer the gutsy underdog, he was the (former) champion, and he never really found comfort in his new role. Immediately after, he lost to Rashad, lost to Silva, and as I said before, that was that.
Now that he is retired, it's time to look back on the early version of Forrest Griffin. Not the top of the card favorite, and certainly not the post-Silva headcase, but the gutsy young fighter who turned in incredible performances. At this point, that version of Griffin has been gone for 5 years, meaning there's an entire contingent of UFC fans who have never seen this Forrest. And that's a shame. Because anyone who watched his rise up the ranks can (hopefully) remember what a thrilling ride it was. The TUF Finale. The emotional first fight with Tito Ortiz. The painful loss to Jardine. The huge win over Shogun. These were incredible moments that defined an era in the UFC, and Forrest Griffin was at the center of all of them.
Yes, the end was bumpy, but the ride was so sweet. And now, that's the way I chose to remember this UFC Hall of Famer.
And so, Forrest Griffin, congratulations on a retirement that brings to an end one of the single most important careers in UFC history. We as fans are lucky to have seen you fight. And we shouldn't forget that.
Check back later this for more on Forrest Griffin, including a look back at Griffin vs. Bonnar.