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UFC 92 Main Event Breakdown: Griffin vs Evans

Michael DiSanto, UFC - Can you see me now?

Brock Lesnar uttered those words back in August after bludgeoning talented veteran Heath Herring to earn his first shot at UFC gold. The media and pundits alike ridiculed Lesnar, a former WWE superstar, as an overhyped media sensation who had no business challenging Randy Couture for the UFC heavyweight crown in his fourth heavyweight fight. After all, according to them, his immense popularity was media created, not created by his accomplishments inside the Octagon.
By Michael DiSanto

Can you see me now?

Brock Lesnar uttered those words back in August after bludgeoning talented veteran Heath Herring to earn his first shot at UFC gold. The media and pundits alike ridiculed Lesnar, a former WWE superstar, as an overhyped media sensation who had no business challenging Randy Couture for the UFC heavyweight crown in his fourth heavyweight fight. After all, according to them, his immense popularity was media created, not created by his accomplishments inside the Octagon.

Of course, Lesnar proved the world wrong, laughing in the face of his doubters as he stopped Couture in the second round of their bout to win the most coveted title in combat sports.

Can you see me now?

All due respect to the heavyweight champion, but those words were never more appropriate than they are right now as UFC 92 approaches.

When UFC czar Dana White first announced that the UFC had signed a deal with Spike TV to put on a reality show for guys trying to fight their way into the UFC, it was met with tremendous skepticism in the hardcore fight world. No single group was more critical of the show and its participants than the roster of then-current UFC fighters, each of whom had fought in relative obscurity, paying their dues for mere chicken scratch with the hopes of someday earning a trip, through literal blood, sweat and tears, to the Octagon.

I’ll never forget the night.

It was April 9, 2005. Earlier that day, I’d spoken with reigning UFC 185-lb champion Evan Tanner (rest in peace, my friend). I asked him what he thought of The Ultimate Fighter. His response was terse: “Put me in with any of those guys, and I’ll expose them. These guys aren’t UFC-caliber fighters. They are media creations—pure hype. But I’d love to fight the winner of either the middleweight or light heavyweight divisions because it would be an easy night and bring a good payday.”

At the time, I agreed with Tanner. I’d neither met in person nor spoken on the phone to any of the TUF cast at that point. But I wasn’t buying into the hype of the show, either.

Nevertheless, I went to the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada to cover the show’s finale. I was there with one of my Insidefighting.com staff writers, Scott Jordan, known as “Juice” by his friends. There was a mix up with the credentials, so Jordan didn’t have a cage-side seat in press row. Instead, he had a ticket in the stands.

I decided to join him and watch the fights not from the perspective of the isolated journalists cage-side, but instead from the perspective of the thousands of fight fans in the stands. Juice and I headed up to the second to last row and sat next to a large group of rabid fight fans and watched the single greatest MMA fight of our lives: Forrest Griffin versus Stephan Bonnar.

That fight forever changed the trajectory of the UFC from a business perspective, sending its popularity on a hockey-stick growth pattern that quickly leapfrogged boxing and other spectator sports over the next three years.

None of that, however, changed the view of many that the TUF competitors were more media creations than actual championship-level fighters.

Over the next year, I got to know several of the TUF competitors, including Josh Koscheck and Mike Swick. Watching them train at the American Kickboxing Academy and compete inside the Octagon, I started to realize that these guys worked as hard as anyone, and their potential seemed endless.

But I still wasn’t convinced that any of the TUF guys would actually rise to the top of the sport any time soon. It wasn’t long before TUF alumni served notice on the entire UFC roster and the rest of the sporting world that they were to be taken very seriously as world-class competitors.

On July 5, 2008, Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson defended his 205-lb title against Griffin. The fight marked the third time that a TUF 1 alumnus challenged for a UFC title. First, Nate Quarry was utterly undressed by then-185-lb champion Rich Franklin (a highlight knockout win that graces the screen of timeless one-punch knockouts to this day). Next, Kenny Florian was thoroughly dominated by Sean Sherk en route to dropping a five-round unanimous decision with the 155-lb title on the line.

I predicted that Griffin would suffer a similar fate to his former castmates.

Juice disagreed, claiming Griffin would prove me wrong, and he did just that, becoming the first TUF 1 alumnus to win a UFC title by pounding out a hard-fought unanimous decision win over Rampage as millions of shocked fans watched from the arena and their couches.

Two months later, Rashad Evans, the season two heavyweight winner, faced iconic knockout artist and former 205-lb champion Chuck ‘The Iceman’ Liddell in a title eliminator. I predicted a brutal, painful Liddell victory. My younger brother, Tony, said that Evans’ edge in speed and athleticism would result in Evans scoring an improbable knockout.

My brother saw through the hype. I was blinded by it. And just under two minutes into the second round, Evans landed the right hand heard around the world. It dropped Liddell like a man hit in the head at point-blank range with a blast from a 12-gauge shotgun. It was a punch that paved the way for a historic UFC moment: on December 27, Griffin will defend his title against Evans in the first-ever all-TUF UFC championship bout.

So, how does the fight break down?

The differences between the pair are obvious. Griffin, the champion, has a fighting spirit that cannot be broken in any situation. One week before Christmas Day in 2003, Griffin suffered a badly broken arm in the first round of his fight with Edson Paredao. Most fighters would have rightfully tapped out in that situation. Griffin, by contrast, used the break in his forearm to escape the hold and then knocked out his opponent. Bruised, bloodied and completely exhausted against Bonnar at the first TUF finale, Griffin refused to quit despite getting tagged with shots that would have stopped lesser men. Instead, he pushed himself past normal human limits of pain and conditioning to grind out a win in the most exciting fight that I’ve ever witnessed. And he trains daily with the guys at Xtreme Couture, including Wanderlei ‘The Axe Murderer’ Silva, a man with legendary drive and ferocious punching power, so there is nothing that Evans can do to him that hasn’t been done before.

In other words, Griffin will keep moving forward from the opening moments of the fight, throwing his fists, looking for takedowns and doing anything else that he can within the rules to win the fight. He won’t stop until he hears the final bell or is knocked out cold.

Evans hasn’t had the need to show the same unbreakable fighting spirit in the Octagon because, quite frankly, nobody has put him through the same level of adversity that Griffin has had to survive. Instead, he uses his unbelievable athleticism and wrestling skills honed while competing at Michigan State University to impose his will on opponents. He has never before experienced the sour taste of defeat. And he doesn’t plan on tasting it on December 27.

Evans is the better athlete. He is the deadlier striker. He doesn’t know how to lose. But Griffin has proven that he can not only survive in the face of insurmountable odds, he can overcome them.

I’m not going to break down each man’s gameplan. Instead, I’m going to sit back and enjoy the moment. I’m going to enjoy history in the making. I’m going to enjoy watching Griffin defend his belt against Evans. I’m going to finally enjoy the end of the unwarranted criticisms and witness the affirmation of the quality of fighters turned out by TUF.

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