The seventh season of “The Ultimate Fighter” featured teams of Ultimate Fighting Championship hopefuls, coached by UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton Jackson and No. 1 contender Forrest Griffin, who would fight for Jackson’s belt after the season. Jackson and Griffin had some general traits in common—they fought in the same weight division for the same promotion and shared reputations as class clowns—but otherwise could not have been much more different, and one of the most prominent contrasts between the two was the path each had taken to that championship fight.
In mid-2008, ahead of their meeting in the main event of UFC 86, Jackson was one of the premier fighters in the sport. Like several other of Pride Fighting Championships’ biggest stars, such as Mirko Filipovic, “Rampage” had jumped ship well before the Japansese juggernaut’s final death throes, and after a one-off fight with Matt Lindland, had made his long-awaited UFC debut in 2007. Jackson had fought three times that year, avenging an early-career loss to Marvin Eastman, knocking out Chuck Liddell to win the UFC light heavyweight title and defeating Pride’s final 203-pound champion, Dan Henderson, to unify the two belts. It was enough to certify Jackson as Sherdog’s 2007 “Fighter of the Year.”
In contrast with Jackson, who was one of the most battle-tested and respected stars in the sport, Griffin was still something of an unknown quantity at best, suspect goods at worst. He had won the inaugural season of “TUF,” helping propel the UFC to unprecedented success in his legendary clash with Stephan Bonnar at the season finale, but practically nobody thought of him as the most deserving challenger for Jackson’s title. The court of public opinion was still very much undecided when it came to the skill level of the fighters coming out of the reality show, and even among them, Griffin was no longer a particular standout; he had lost twice since the show, including a knockout at the hands of castmate Keith Jardine. He had only earned the title shot by playing spoiler, as he had been booked as the debut opponent for Mauricio Rua, arguably the most coveted former Pride star to join the UFC. Instead of serving as a warm-up fight before “Shogun” to rematch Jackson for the belt, Griffin weathered a rough first round to choke the fading “Shogun” out in the third.
Regardless of the paths they had taken to get there, Griffin had earned his shot, the two men had filmed the reality show to build interest and on July 5, 2008, they entered the Octagon together with Jackson a nearly 3-to-1 favorite. The fight that ensued was a good one, one of the first great five-round title fights in the history of the division. It featured both men’s best skills on full display as well as big swings in momentum. Griffin prevailed by unanimous decision, a result that had some fans—and of course Jackson—crying foul afterward. While it was possible even at the time to score the fight for either man, and for the record the professional media were about as evenly split as possible, rewatching the fight today, without the expectations of Jackson and Griffin’s professional trajectories, it feels even less like any sort of robbery. The only mystifying part of the official scorecards is that Nelson “Doc” Hamilton, a veteran MMA judge, managed to score the very straightforward first and fifth rounds wrong, but those errors added up to the same final score as his colleague Adalaide Byrd, who had the right of things for once in history.
The win cemented Griffin’s place in MMA history; while he would have been a historically notable figure no matter what, there is a clear divide in our collective memories between fighters who won a title and those who didn’t. It also helped vindicate “The Ultimate Fighter” as a legitimate source of top-level fighters, a perception that would gain currency as Season 2 winner Rashad Evans dethroned Griffin in his first title defense.