The Price of (In)Experience

By Joe Hall Sep 25, 2007
At a news conference two days before his UFC 76 fight against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, Forrest Griffin (Pictures) explained how he had inserted himself into a showdown with the man considered the best light heavyweight in the world:

"We're thinking about you and [Ryoto] Machida on Sept. 22," UFC matchmaker Joe Silva had said to him.

"That's cool," Griffin replied. "We can do that. Who's fighting Shogun?"

"We're still looking for somebody to fight Shogun."

"Well … you've found somebody to fight Shogun. Why don't you go find somebody to fight Machida?"

Griffin wanted the Chute Boxer, he said, because he liked his style.

That style, in one word, is relentless. Shogun didn't destroy Quinton Jackson (Pictures) and outlast Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (Pictures) because he's technical. He beat them because he's nonstop.

In asking for Shogun, Griffin was requesting a brawl. He was asking for another 15 minutes of bloody helter-skelter, a battle like he had with Bonnar, the type of bout that comes down to heart and hustle.

The perfect fight, in other words, for Forrest Griffin (Pictures).

Only, Shogun should have knocked him out. Eventually the PRIDE veteran's superior skill should have prevailed.

On Saturday, though, Shogun wasn't superior. He was just sloppy.

The Brazilian spent much of the fight rolling and turtling and rolling again. Whenever he poked his head out of his shell, Griffin popped him one.

The underdog had prepared for the pace. He was at least a step ahead the whole way, until the end, when Shogun quit, long after he wasn't racing anymore.

The most telling point of the fight came 3:30 into the second round. Griffin had easily slipped out of a single-leg and forced his heavy-armed foe to fight on the feet. After a minute of plodding, Shogun lumbered his leg into a high kick that wouldn't have turned Griffin's cheek had it hit him flush.

No matter -- Griffin was gone long before the kick slogged through the air where he'd been. Shogun let his momentum turn him full-circle, and then there he stood, alone in the center of the cage, hands at his waist, a big breath coming into his chest, a big breath going out.

The best light heavyweight in the world? Eight minutes of fighting, and he needed an hour lunch and two Mountain Dews.

It's hard to know exactly what happened. Maybe Shogun had mono. Maybe he stayed up Friday night watching HBO or playing the slots -- err, well, I guess this show was in Anaheim, wasn't it?

No, in a sport with infinite variables vying for significance, the one that probably beat Shogun was inexperience.

Although his record shows as many bouts as Griffin's, Shogun had only fought in the United States, in a cage, twice. Both fights were on the same night four years ago, and he lost then too.

Griffin had the home-field advantage. Since April 2005, he had fought in the UFC seven times. Inside the Octagon he had stood toe-to-toe for 15 minutes twice, had fought on his back with Tito Ortiz (Pictures) on top of him, had fought off submissions, had been cut, had been stopped, had won and had lost.

He had done it all, the pre-fight media blitz, the slow stroll to the cage, the staredown before the bell. Shogun had done it, too, but not here.

The UFC is a stunning new world. Veteran fighters make inexperienced mistakes in Octagon debuts. They don't keep their hands up. They don't move or set up power punches. They don't breathe.

Then suddenly the tank's empty, with two long minutes left in the second round and five more to go in the third.

Shogun is world-class, but he had a terrible night against a good fighter prepped for a 15-minute melee.

Griffin was game for the brawl he had expected but didn't get. After Shogun had sliced Griffin's forehead with an elbow on the ground, he had to get off his back. He did, almost immediately, kicking Shogun away and then escaping to his feet.

In the third round, Shogun wanted to rest in Griffin's guard. Griffin put a foot on his hip, shoved him back for space and spun into a brilliant omoplata reversal.

The ending was elementary. The Brazilian was broken before the choke, but Griffin deserved a decisive conclusion -- his Octagon dues had already been paid in full.

Although inexperience beat Shogun, its opposite beat Chuck Liddell (Pictures).

Excluding his two-minute meeting with Quinton Jackson (Pictures) in May, three years had passed since he fought someone who didn't want him on his back. In that time Liddell has become more of a puncher and less of a mixed martial artist.

Keith Jardine (Pictures) picked him apart with leg kicks. Before the fight it would have seemed a fair trade for Liddell: his right hand for Jardine's kicks. He'd take one to throw one.

But Jardine's head didn't stay where Liddell wanted it. When Jardine kicked, always with his right leg, he stapled his chin to his chest and hid it between his hunched shoulders. If Liddell had connected, he'd have mangled his fist on the top of Jardine's noggin.

Jardine was also leaning left on those right kicks, moving his torso off-center and thereby dodging a straight-right counter. However, the clever tactic balanced his body on his left leg longer than any mixed martial artist should get by with. You can kick like that when you know your opponent won't take a shot.

Liddell, a former college wrestler, could have beaten Jardine if he had taken him down. Takedowns were there for three rounds, but Liddell was too busy punching, too focused on an old strategy that wouldn't work on a new opponent, something Jardine said he was well aware heading into the fight.

Liddell's stubbornness, understandably hardened from so much big punching in his successful career, made him less dangerous. With one takedown he could have changed the stand-up dynamic, to say nothing of winning the fight with strikes on the mat.

If he had at least presented the possibility, Jardine wouldn't have been so comfortable on his feet. Instead the Greg Jackson-trained fighter worried of nothing but his opponent's punches, allowing him to fight from a range where his kicks could land but Liddell's hands couldn't.

Liddell never adjusted. He kept a wide, anti-takedown stance against an adversary who wasn't going to shoot, which left his lead leg and his body prone to the butchering Jardine's kicks gave them.

Midway through the second round, it was clear that the punch-for-kick trade wasn't a fair deal for Liddell. Jardine wouldn't eat the right hand that had been ordered for him, and his kicks were welting Liddell's body.

Liddell finally lifted his left leg and blocked a kick in the third round. Before his leg touched the mat again he was walloped with a left hook.

More hooks followed. Jardine had controlled the bout on the outside, and his success and damage there allowed him to win it on the inside too.

In the biggest fight of his career, Jardine's game plan was perfect, his execution flawless. Liddell had been baffled. After the final bell, he raised his arms. "Did I win?" he seemed to ask, looking confused.

Nope.

It was a mixed martial arts fight, and for three rounds Liddell had stood struggling with the problem Jardine posed on the feet, when all along the solution was on the ground.
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