Sunday, July 06, 2008


From reality TV star to UFC champion, Forrest Griffin's mixed martial arts ascendancy hit its high mark Saturday in Las Vegas.

The goofy-eared 29-year-old kid, who gave up a career in law enforcement to throw himself headfirst into MMA, reached the pinnacle of his serendipitous career by capturing the UFC light heavyweight title, on points, over top-ranked Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.

Having won the light heavyweight bracket on the debut season of "The Ultimate Fighter" -- the SpikeTV program that drove the Ultimate Fighting Championship and MMA into the mainstream -- Griffin was already a star heading into his challenge at the Mandalay Bay. Now, he is perhaps the biggest star in the UFC's deepest division.

Though judges at ringside scored it unanimously for the new champion, victory didn't come without a price to pay.

The opening round belonged to Jackson, 30, who crushed Chuck Liddell in May 2007 to capture the UFC belt. He bolstered his claim as the best light heavyweight in the world with a decision over Pride 205-pound champion Dan Henderson in September.

Walking to the octagon tonight, Jackson's entourage carried both belts high. The champion's camp didn't consider Griffin much of a threat. Rampage's power, as said in pre-fight interviews, would eventually get to Griffin's previously exposed chin.

In the first five minutes, their predictions appeared accurate.

Jackson twice hurt Griffin with punches to the head. The first, a glancing hook to the temple, was followed later in the round by an uppercut that put the challenger down. But as Griffin has done throughout his career, most notably in an infamous fight in Brazil he won despite a broken arm, he survived.

The course of the fight changed in round 2 when Griffin planted buckling low kicks on Jackson's lead leg. Planting hard each time he threw heavy lumber, Jackson was exposed to Thai kicks and Griffin, one of the most cerebral mixed martial artists, made the proper adjustment.

"He jacked my leg up," Jackson said in the cage afterward. "I tried to pretend. I ain't really good at acting. But he really hurt my leg."

Griffin pressured Jackson to the canvas, where he moved from guard, to side-control, to full mount. Rampage, whose rewards after stopping Liddell included a key to his childhood hometown of Memphis, Tenn., held on until the bell sounded to close the second.

Rounds three and four were less dramatic, but equally competitive.

With Griffin backing off the leg-kicking attack, Jackson began again to step in and throw lead hooks and uppercuts.

"Every punch he threw hurt," said Griffin, who joined Jackson as coaches on the seventh season of "The Ultimate Fighter." The reality-show based hiatus kept Jackson out of the cage for nine months, something he noted after the bout.

In the fourth an ugly gash underneath the challenger's right eyebrow opened after a wild exchange. The light heavyweights went to the canvas, where Griffin worked on the closest submission attempt of the fight. Jackson defended the triangle choke by powering the 6-foot-3 Griffin off the canvas before slamming him back down to earth. Well aware of the defense Jackson offered in the same scenario against Ricardo Arona, Griffin smartly released the hold before he was lifted high enough where a slam might really hurt.

With Jackson landing power shots and Griffin upping the pace, the five-round title fight was tight all the way to the end. Between rounds four and five Rampage's trainer, Juanito Ibarra, repeatedly told his charge that he was in control of the fight. Judges' cards would show otherwise.

Jackson, the words of his close trainer and advisor ringing in his ears, stepped off the gas and cruised until the 90 remained. Despite being busier, Griffin (16-4) didn't land an effective shot in the last period.

Cage-side, judges Adalaide Byrd and Nelson "Doc" Hamilton saw it 48-46 for Griffin, while Roy Silbert tallied a 49-46 advantage for the new champion. scored the bout even at 47-47 -- rounds 1, 3 and 4 to Jackson; Griffin earned the second, at 10-8, and the 5th.

Jackson had no problem with the scoring, going so far as to say Griffin "whooped my ass." But, added the fighter whose record fell to 28-7, "I ain't no stranger to getting my ass whooped."

Said the new champion, who earned the title shot by choking Mauricio Rua: "This is the best moment of my life."

Middleweights Patrick Cote and Ricardo Almeida waged a slow three-round contest that saw the judges split in their verdict. Hoping to get the fight to the floor, Almeida, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, failed to do so after the opening round. It cost him on two judges' cards, who awarded the contest 29-28 to Cote, the French Canadian fighter's fifth straight win in the UFC after losing his first four bouts.

With Almeida (9-3) struggling to put Cote (13-4) on the canvas, just one judge saw it for the Renzo Gracie pupil, also by a 29-28 tally.

On a night when T.U.F winners ruled the world, Joe Stevenson, who captured the title in the show's second season, submitted Gleison Tibau (15-6) in a lightweight fight. Struggling early with Tibau's size, Stevenson (29-8) timed a takedown attempt perfectly to secure an arm-in guillotine choke at 2:57 of round two.

Cutting Chris Lytle's face in three spots -- two above the Indiana firefighter's right eye and a third between his eyebrows -- Josh Koscheck earned a dominant unanimous decision.

The welterweights fought cautiously in the first, but Koscheck opened up in the middle period. Straddling Lytle from the half-guard, Koscheck (11-2) delivered cutting shots that started a torrent of blood. Covered in red, Lytle (25-16-5) continued with the consent of referee Yves Lavigne. Though he tried valiantly to rally in the third, Lytle could not muster a comeback against the ranked Koscheck.

Tyson Griffin kept himself in UFC lightweight title contention by out-pointing Brazilian veteran Marcus Aurelio in the first televised bout of the evening.

The plan for Griffin, a strong 24-year-old lightweight training out of Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas, was simple: avoid Aurelio's submission game. He did that and more over the course of the 15-minute fight.

During three medium-paced rounds Griffin (12-1) worked straight rights and left hooks to the 34-year-old Aurelio's body. When the bout hit the floor, Griffin delivered heavy punches while smartly avoiding submission setups from Aurelio's guard. With the loss, which came by 30-27 scores three times, Aurelio dropped his fourth fight in his last six contests, falling to 16-6 overall.
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