It's hard to imagine Forrest Griffin and Mauricio Rua first met inside the Octagon nearly four years ago in the co-main event of UFC 76: "Knockout" at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California.
Griffin was coming off a "safe" decision win over Hector Ramirez after Keith Jardine reduced him to a weeping, pathetic mess in his previous appearance. "Shogun," meanwhile, was making his promotional debut, entering the eight-walled cage for the first time ever after tearing through most of the opposition put before him while he competed under the Pride FC banner overseas in Japan.
Griffin, the consummate underdog, rose to the occasion and turned in (another) performance of a lifetime, winning with a spectacular submission late in the third and final round. In doing so, he demonstrated that his gutsy, epic battle with Stephan Bonnar was no fluke and he truly belonged among the very best in the crowded 205-pound division.
For his part, Shogun would rebound and win three of his next four bouts, including a knockout of the previously impervious (and undefeated) Lyoto Machida after their first fight (a decision loss for Shogun) ended in controversy.
Since their initial meeting, both men have gone on to win the division title, but could never successfully defend it. Their rematch at UFC 134: "Rio," which is scheduled to take place at the HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this Saturday night (Aug. 27, 2011), will go a long way toward clearing the divisional logjam, which includes other contenders such Rashad Evans and Quinton Jackson, among others.
Forrest Griffin (18-6 MMA, 9-4 UFC):
Big wins: Stephan Bonnar, Mauricio Rua and Quinton Jackson
Bigger losses: Keith Jardine, Rashad Evans and Anderson Silva
Biggest strength: Jack of all trades, master of none
Biggest weakness: Mental
What you need to know: Very tough when he wants to be, fights to his level of competition, just his second fight in nearly two years
What's at stake?: Integrity
Mauricio Rua (19-5 MMA, 3-3 UFC)
Big wins: Quinton Jackson, Ricardo Arona and Lyoto Machida
Bigger losses: Mark Coleman, Forrest Griffin and Jon Jones
Biggest strength: Striking
Biggest weakness: Endurance
What you need to know: Aggressive, dynamic striker who has been plagued with knee injuries the past several years
What's at stake?: Pride
Griffin is a product of the UFC farm system, rising from The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) reality series through the light heavyweight ranks and reaching the division's pinnacle. He has shined when his star was not supposed to, while he has fallen when it was expected to burn brightest. What he lacks in pure athletic talent, he more than makes up for in the gym with his legendary dedication to training. He's a gym rat, an opportunistic overachiever who is able to beat more talented opposition when it matters most, relying on his conditioning and solid all-around skills to lead him to improbable victory. On the flip side, his growth as a professional fighter has self-admittedly "plateaued," which is never a positive development to experience, much less admit, when expected to compete against many of the most dangerous men on the planet each time out.
Rua's road back to Brazil could not have been more different than Griffin's, emerging from the vaunted Chute Boxe Academy that was known for producing stone-cold killers like Wanderlei Silva. His brutal run through the Pride FC Middleweight Grand Prix tournament in 2005, at the tender age of 23, was a sight to be seen. Four sights, actually -- Quinton Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Noguiera, Alistair Overeem and Ricardo Arona, Since 2007, however, Rua -- widely regarded as the best 205-pound fighter on the planet prior to his UFC introduction -- has had to deal with multiple knee injuries that have all required major surgeries to repair. Those injuries have perhaps led to lackluster success stateside when compared to his ferocious exploits while competing in the "Land of the Rising Sun."
How they stack up:
Griffin and Rua have shared a similar path since their first encounter. Both men went on to win championships, only to cough them up during their first title defenses. They have also both sustained serious injuries, Griffin to his shoulder and Rua to his knee(s). Both have competed just five times in those four years and both have the same record during that span (3-2).
Despite the rustiness, Griffin has been able to win back-to-back fights over talented opposition, including former champions Tito Ortiz and Rich Franklin. He's not much of a finisher, ending just one fight (Rua) in nearly six years. His length, strength and size allow him to keep his distance and pick his opponents apart. Griffin has fantastic cardio and serviceable submissions, which can be attributed to all the hard work he puts into the gym. His wrestling needs work, as well as his motivation to turn in solid performances. In fact, it's typically his opponents who can bring the best out him and make him forget that he's not a God-given talent.
Rua, when healthy, is an absolute animal and a nightmare to deal with once the cage door closes. He has a dynamic arsenal of strikes and sinister muay Thai skills that have the power to break bones and end fights before they even get started. The caveat here is "when healthy." It's a state that "Shogun" has not fully enjoyed for an extended period of time since before his first fight with Griffin. He was not only upset in that match, but thoroughly dismantled and embarrassed by Jon Jones earlier this year in his first fight back from injury.
In their first fight, Griffin and Rua were not afraid to mix it up. It was surprising to see Griffin dominated a large portion of the action, especially while upright, right up until the fight-ending submission.
At the time, Griffin had nothing to lose because there was no way he was expected to topple the number one ranked light heavyweight in the world (at the time) on a night reserved for his coming out party. And it showed -- he threw caution into the wind and went balls to the wall for nearly 15 minutes.
This time around the situation is a bit different. Griffin isn't such an overwhelming underdog, which could shift him into another mental gear where he plays it safe and avoids getting lured into a scrambling, up-and-down slugfest, which is where he is his most successful.
Griffin already has one up on Rua. Therefore, perhaps he won't feel the pressure to perform just like the first time around. He's also enjoying a nice two-fight win streak. Having said all of that, he seems completely disinterested pursuing a lengthy fighting career at this point in his life, much less against a guy like Shogun. He's got a publisher who wants more books, a growing family that needs support and big corporate sponsors that are relying on him to pimp their products. Griffin has made it clear that fighting has become more of an obligation and less of a passion. That's not good.
Rua is healthy once again, or so he says. He's eager to put the loss to Jones behind him as quickly as possible and get back on the path to title contention. And what better place to start than in front of an emotional hometown crowd. That same outside support could prove to be detrimental, especially if he's unable to channel it into sustained momentum. Having an adrenaline dump against an Energizer Bunny like Griffin is the last thing that he can afford to happen. He's hopefully learned from that mistake.
Decision for either fighter. Technical knockout for Rua. Lightning likely won't strike twice in the submission department for Griffin, who himself has proven difficult to submit (it's never happened).
I'm admittedly a little disappointed in the promotion of this fight, which is between two former champions who are both looking to make another run at the title moving forward. It also has a great back story -- Griffin's upset win was absolutely thrilling in the context of the moment.
Whether it's Griffin's dry humor or Rua's language barrier, something is missing. Something has been lost in translation. I can't put my finger on it. All we can hope for is that both men, who have never been known to talk smack or build fights, step inside that cage this weekend and put on an encore performance that will have us talking about a potential trilogy match on Sunday morning.
They both possess that ability to make it a reality, again, especially with so much at stake for both fighters.
Griffin is once again presented with an opportunity to succeed when most think he'll fail, while Rua is out to prove in front of a proud crowd that he was, and still is, the better man four years later.
That's worth fighting for.