Josh Gross
Sunday July 6th, 2008

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

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

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

Though Saturday's judges scored the bout unanimously in favor of Griffin, victory didn't come easy for the underdog.

The opening round belonged to Jackson, the man known for handing Chuck Liddell a crushing loss in May 2007 to capture the UFC belt. Rampage bolstered his claim as the best light heavyweight in the world with a decision over PRIDE's 205-pound champion, Dan Henderson, in September.

As he entered the Octagon this past weekend, 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 hurt Griffin -- twice -- with punches to the head. The first, a glancing hook to the temple, was followed with an uppercut later in the round that took the challenger down. But, as Griffin has done throughout his career, most notably in a fight in Brazil that he won with a broken arm, he survived.

The course of the fight changed in the second round 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. "I tried to pretend. I'm not 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, 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.

In the fourth, an ugly gash underneath Griffin's right eyebrow opened after a wild exchange. Both fighters 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. 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 90 seconds 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; round 2 (10-8) and 5 to Griffin.

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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