Reality television gets the nod for putting Forrest Griffin and Rashad Evans in the cage together. In 2005, the two were unknowns, fighting through the jungle of small promotions with a dream of UFC glory. Three years later, both have found success beyond their wildest dreams, using the fight show to propel their careers (and incomes) into a professional life in the cage.
In July, Griffin proved the reality show was a breeding ground for future champions, winning a decision over light heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson at UFC 86 for the first "TUF"-borne UFC title.
In September, Evans stepped out of the show's shadow by knocking the organization's biggest star, five-time light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell, into a heap on the canvas of UFC 88. Liddell was widely expected to coast by Evans, setting up a lucrative main event against Griffin. With the victory, Evans both silenced and enraged critics who had little to judge him by, other than a single jaw-rattling right hand in a fight he was, up until that point, losing on judges' scorecards.
Whoever wins on Saturday at UFC 92 will likely have two options for his next title defense, neither one attractive. Wanderlei Silva and former champion Quinton Jackson are perhaps more hungry to face the winner of the bout than they are to face each other. Whether Griffin retains the belt or Evans becomes its new owner, they'll have their hands full in 2009.
Despite current evidence to the contrary, Griffin retains a slight edge in the stand-up realm of the fight. His overall technique, particularly his footwork, has improved light years from his days on The Ultimate Fighter. He has a crisp, straight jab and a good counter right hand for traditionally stanced fighters like Evans. Leg kicks are also a strong point. With Evans' wrestling background, Griffin will try to take the spring out of his step. Though he is not known for his knockout power, he is particularly good at putting together combinations that score points.
Evans, on the other hand, has proven his knockout power repeatedly, both with his hands and his feet. Knockouts of Jason Lambert, Sean Salmon, and Liddell have proven his ability to stop fights. He does, however, tend to load up his punches more, or throw flurries en route to a takedown attempt. His challenge will be to negotiate Griffin's combinations in close and avoid getting picked apart at range.
Evans' teammate, Keith Jardine, proved there is a limit to the amount of punishment Griffin can take, stopping him with punches at UFC 66. Afterwards, Griffin became a far more measured fighter, declining the slugfests that made his early UFC career.
A decided advantage goes to Evans. A decorated collegiate wrestler, his ability to take a fight down is one of his major strong suits. His ability to keep the fight there is a point of contention, but he is relentless in his ground attack. Against Tito Ortiz at UFC 73, Evans also showed his ability to avoid damage from the bottom. Ortiz, renowned for his ground and pound prowess, could not unload on Evans, or keep him from escaping dangerous positions. Evans' jiu-jitsu is serviceable, and is used more to set up scrambles than submit opponents. Under the tutelage of Greg Jackson, his ground game has expanded beyond that of a pure wrestler, but it may be a while before we see him submit anybody.
Griffin comes to the ground game with a stronger base in jiu-jitsu, particularly in setting up scrambles when the fight hits the mat. He is also very good at avoiding danger from the bottom, unless of course, he is hurt, as in the Jardine fight. His long, lanky limbs are good at controlling opponent's movements; his hips are active within guard. From top position, he is excellent at using his elbows to grind his opponent out, as he did against Quinton Jackson. Again, he is not known as a finisher from the mat, but he can frustrate opponents to his advantage.
Griffin is not the all-out brawler he was when he first entered the Octagon, but continually presses the action. More prudent in his attack, he tends to set up his combinations better when given range to work. Expect him to be tentative at first, then gradually ramp up his attack, especially if he is able to repel takedown attempts. He shouldn't come straight at Evans, but work angles to get in and get out quick. If he is pressed in early rounds, expect a late fight rally.
Evans needs to turn up the pressure for the fight, never letting Griffin get set. A counter fighter by nature, Evans will need to go against his natural inclination to take control of the action. The clinch will be very important for the fight, with Evans looking to for transitions to the mat and Griffin using it for knees and dirty boxing, so you can expect Evans to close the distance quickly if he begins taking leg kicks. He will likely use any aggression from Griffin to set up takedowns. On his feet, he may decide to stand and trade if he is successful at timing Griffin early on. A slugfest may be exact what he wants.
For a 25-minute fight, this may be the biggest deciding factor of the fight, at least from a historical perspective. Griffin has one of the best work ethics in the game, and is mentored by a guru of cardio, Randy Couture. Against Jackson in July, Griffin never slowed, and against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua last September, simply wore the Brazilian out with his pace. He has one championship fight under his belt already, and that's something you can't simulate.
Evans' conditioning, especially in a 25-minute fight, is a question mark. He has repeatedly tired, both at heavyweight and light heavyweight, in highly contested fights that go the distance. He has not gassed completely, but seems to seesaw in energy level as the fight goes past 10 minutes. If he is unable to stop Griffin early on, he will undoubtedly be in a 25-minute fight, and it remains to be seen whether it's possible for him to truly adapt to its demands. Though Evans comes from a stellar camp, if he wasn't able to go hard for 15 minutes last year, is it reasonable to expect he'll be able to do so for 25 minutes this year? Will the added pressure take from his gas tank?
Evans is undefeated in MMA competition, and that's both good and bad. He's never had to bounce back from a loss. Regardless of what he says about having fun in a fight, a record's a record. It's unblemished, and he'd like to keep it that way. His greatest attribute is his ability to rise above the expectations placed on him, and for this reason, can never be counted out as before. He has a common opponent with Griffin in Ortiz, and would have lost the UFC 73 fight had Ortiz not been deducted a point for fence grabbing. Griffin faced Ortiz at UFC 59 in an earlier stage of his evolution than Evans, so it may not be fair to compare the two results. Both have faced roughly the same caliber of competitors, with a slight advantage going to Griffin in overall experience and international experience.
Griffin was anointed an early poster child for the "TUF" movement, and now that he's champ, it remains to be seen how he fights with that pressure. His TKO loss to Jardine changed him. Gone was the reckless abandon that fans initially gravitated towards. In its place was a more sober, professional fighter, one who wasn't going to waste an opportunity at climbing the title ladder by fighting dumb. Against Evans, it may produce a stalemate if neither fighter is willing to make the first move. And in the past, both have had boring fights when that happened.
Again, Griffin fights at his best when he's given space to do so. If he can pick apart Evans from the outside, stuff takedowns, and use his long arms and legs to score points, he will take the victory home. If he over commits at all, he will be taken down and forced to work from his back.
Evans' best option is to be the aggressor; take Griffin down, pound him out, stop him early. He cannot afford to wait for the right opportunity here.