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After long layoff, Griffin seeks to get back on track against Franklin

On the back cover of Gang of Four's first single, there is a reproduction of a picture and a letter. The picture is of a bull charging a matador. In the letter, the group spells out a dialogue they would like to accompany it.

"You know," the matador says, "we're both in the entertainment business, we have to give the audience what they want. I don't like to do this but I earn double the amount I'd get if I were in a 9-5 job."

"I think," the bull says, "that at some point we have to take responsibility for our actions."

This has an obvious relevance to Forrest Griffin's fight against Rich Franklin on Saturday in Las Vegas at UFC 126, though I have no idea whether Griffin is more like the matador or the bull, and having talked to him, I doubt he does either.

Griffin is the most important fighter in the short history of the UFC. Watching Griffin and Stephan Bonnar spend three rounds beating one another bloody in the finals of the first season of the promotion's reality television show-cum-tournament, The Ultimate Fighter, in April 2005, millions of people at once understood what the point of fighting is. Here was a clean kid, a former cop out of Georgia, risking disfigurement out of nothing more than a kind of love. Most people have never been in a real fight, but they know or at least can imagine how it is to care about something. Here was someone like them -- no technician, and no pure athlete -- who could remind them of how that feels.

This mattered so much that Griffin became the rarest sort of fighter, one who wins for losing. In December 2006, on what was to that point the biggest show in UFC history, Griffin was pounded out in the first round by Keith Jardine and then collapsed in the corner of the cage, crying. What could have made him a punchline made him even more popular. Everyone knows how it is to fail, and how it is to not be able to take it.

Nine months after the Jardine fight, Griffin was run up against the best, most vicious 205-pounder alive, Mauricio Rua, then making his UFC debut. The money had it as a kind of death for Griffin, a mismatch between a carefully protected reality television star and the avatar of every purist who had ever stayed up to an absurd hour to watch the best fights in the world, live from Japan. Griffin didn't just beat the Brazilian, he choked him out. In his next bout, he went five hard rounds to win the light heavyweight championship from another legend of the Japanese ring, Quinton Jackson. That was two and a half years ago, and he hasn't had a quality win since.

Lately, Griffin has been asking himself a lot what he wants to do over the next year. He hasn't fought in 14 months because of injury, and he feels dull and heavy.

"It's hard to say from where I am now," he said, "but let's just take the Franklin fight out of the mix. I'd like to fight about three times this year, fight some pretty good people and, really, just get my body back where I want it. And just get better at this. It's not a lot of fun if you're not real good. I just want to be better at fighting."

Griffin is self-deprecating to the point where you can dismiss it as shtick -- set no expectations and you'll never disappoint anyone -- but people around him will tell you that the whole joke is that he means it, that it he was never more miserable than after he won the title, never more carefree than after he lost it. He's spent a lot of long drives home during his comeback training thinking about how he can't even get the best of his training partners. He'll be 32 this summer, old enough to lose some of the snap he never really had; he's taken beatings and fought hurt, and it's starting to tell.

"I need to change my game," he said. "I don't have the chin I once I had, and I allow myself to be slower than I have to be. I actually can be a little quicker, I just don't force it. So I don't know.

"I think after this fight I might go out and seek some different coaching. I've never had somebody that game-planned a camp for me. I always thought, 'I'm the f---ing man.' I hire a jits coach, I hire a mitts guy, I pay a couple of sparring partners, I run my s---. But I'm actually, after this fight, looking to put it all in someone else's hands. I haven't done that since I left Georgia, since I left Adam Singer. And that's kind of what I want again. I want somebody to tell me what to do."

The problem is that Griffin doesn't have the kind of game that anyone can easily train into something new. He isn't a Division I wrestling stud or a jiu-jitsu player who's been wrapping his calves around people's necks for years and years. The way he fights, and what made so many people love him, is to just move forward and hit, a lot. When you're young and your chin is hard, you can do that. Take shots like the ones Jardine, Rashad Evans and Anderson Silva dealt Griffin, and eventually the one you take to give two is going to put you down.

"It's not like I'll just fight a good striker, rush him, take him down and hit him," he said. "I wish. I'd like to. That's kind of what I'm trying to do, because I'm getting tired of getting punched in the face. The s--- is getting harder. I ain't getting any quicker."

The technical aspect of his game, though, is probably going to be easier to change than a more basic one: Griffin isn't a finisher, and a lot of the reason for that is mental. The way to trade off against a weakening chin is to take your opponent out quickly, so he can't hit it. Griffin doesn't do that. In the last five years the only time he's finished is against Rua, and that came with 15 seconds left in the final round. You can figure something about why by a story Randy Couture tells, about how Griffin needs to get slapped around the locker room before a fight to get ready.

"Yeah, just self-preservation," Griffin said. "I don't fight to hurt people or finish people. I fight out of survival, like the harder you push me, the more I respond. I don't have a lot of killer instinct. That's like hand speed. You either got it or you don't."

If Griffin fights out of fear, this is the kind of bout that's going to inspire him. Franklin has, in the last two years, faced Chuck Liddell, Vitor Belfort, Wanderlei Silva and Dan Henderson, none in their primes but all still quite heavy-handed, and brought the fight to each of them. That's the point of Franklin in 2011. He isn't quite elite anymore, but he forces a fight. Meet what he brings equally, and you're anointed a contender at light heavyweight or middleweight. Fail to do it and you're something less, an attraction, worthy but no longer one of the best in the world at what you do.

When Griffin was younger, facing Dan Severn and Jeff Monson on regional shows in Georgia and when he had someone there to tell him what to do, fighting was what he used to escape from everything else. There's a level on which it's now what he looks to escape from. In another sport, that might not matter; there have been an awful lot of .300 hitters who spent months at a time feeling like nothing more than a mechanical contraption. They don't have to deal with getting hit in the face. It's an open question whether Griffin is ready for an opponent like Franklin, but the more interesting question might be less what he does than how.

"It comes and goes," Griffin said of the fire that put him where he is. "I just want to win fights. I'm not really a passionate person anymore. You get in there, you want to survive, man."

Vitor Belfort, who will fight Anderson Silva for the middleweight title Saturday, hasn't fought in nearly a year and a half. His opponent, Rich Franklin, was the only high-end opponent he's had since October 2006. He's never fought at middleweight in the UFC. His great conquests in the weight class are Matt Lindland, who was near the end of an outstanding career, and Terry Martin, in the midst of a 2-6 stretch. The promotional line that he's looking to become the first man to win titles in three weight classes is premised on his having won a one-night tournament in 1997 that had no connection to the modern heavyweight championship, and his having won the light heavyweight title by accidentally slicing open Randy Couture less than a minute into their fight, a defeat Couture promptly avenged.

All of this obviously makes him a worthy contender and a fit challenge for a man with a serious claim to being the best fighter in the young history of MMA. Who could possibly say otherwise?

Tim Marchman can be reached at tlmarchman@gmail.com.

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