By the time Aug. 8, 2009, rolled around, fans already knew Anderson Silva was a great fighter.
How could they not? He’d taken the UFC middleweight title from Rich Franklin some three years earlier, then won seven more fights after that, breaking the previous UFC record for most consecutive victories with a graceful destructiveness.
Still, “The Spider” was at a crossroads. He’d cleaned out his division so thoroughly that he’d begun to look bored with his own dominance. A title defense against Patrick Cote in Chicago the year before ended with a TKO due to Cote’s knee injury, but not before Silva confused fans with his refusal to attack. A decision victory over Thales Leites the following April was similarly uninspiring, and suddenly a crisis seemed to be forming.
Why did the world’s best fighter insist on winning without fighting? What could be done to shake him out of an almost aggressive complacency?
With UFC 101, the company’s first event in Philadelphia, planned for late summer 2009, the UFC turned to a familiar solution. What if Silva once again went up in weight, as he had done against James Irvin in a counter-programming effort meant to sink the first Affliction pay-per-view a year earlier? And what if this time he faced a popular former light heavyweight champion?
Enter Forrest Griffin, the overachieving 205-pounder who had gone from total obscurity to reality TV show fame to a brief stint as a titleholder all in the span of a few years. Griffin had taken the UFC light heavyweight title from Quinton Jackson with a narrow decision victory in July 2008, only to turn around and lose the belt to Rashad Evans via TKO in his first title defense later that year.
Griffin, too, was at a crossroads. His “TUF” victory had made him an instant celebrity, and his title win had validated his quick rise. His reign as champion was short even for the tumultuous light heavyweight division, but he was too big a name to go back to fighting the also-rans of the weight class while building himself back up.
Initially, Griffin was connected to a fight with Thiago Silva, who’d recently suffered the first loss of his career at the hands of the rising Lyoto Machida. When the UFC asked him to fight a far superior Silva instead, Griffin once joked that it was the result of “a clerical error.”
It made sense for the UFC. Fans weren’t exactly howling for the chance to see another Silva staring contest with the belt on the line. The Philly fans had a reputation for being ruthless to the extent that Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission executive director Greg Sirb publicly warned fighters at the pre-fight press conference that the crowd would reward them with boos if they brought anything other than their “A-game.”
That comment may not have been specifically aimed at Silva, but it couldn’t have been far from people’s minds.
This was the first time since coming to the UFC that Silva had been anything other than the headliner (Silva-Griffin was the night’s co-main event, leading into the lightweight title clash between champion B.J. Penn and challenger Kenny Florian). Griffin was known for being a workhorse who often beat athletically superior fighters by pushing the pace and wading through the necessary punishment. He seemed big enough to test Silva’s power, and stubborn enough to come forward even when it was bad idea.
But Griffin knew why the UFC had selected him. At a book signing event two months before the fight, Griffin recounted the phone call he’d had with UFC President Dana White when the possibility was proposed to him. The offer was “not really a question” so much as a demand, according to Griffin, but he cautioned White that he wouldn’t go recklessly chasing Silva, no matter what kind of excitement the UFC might be hoping for with the pairing.
“I said, ‘You know I’m not going to just rush in there. I saw what happened to Chris Leben when he did that. I’m going to fight a smart fight.’”
Regardless, Griffin joked, he knew the UFC wanted “a big, slow guy to follow Anderson around and make him look real good,” and he fit the bill.
“But seriously, for a hundred Gs, what are you going to do, say no?” Griffin said. “Of course I’ll fight the fight. It’s 15 minutes, man. I’ll do all right, don’t worry about it.”
Griffin entered the cage that night the same way he would leave it minutes later, jogging down the aisle as if he couldn’t wait to get started. Silva followed in a slow stroll, chin up and head cocked back, as if daring you to try to rush him.
As Bruce Buffer introduced him, the Philadelphia fans peppered Silva with boos, causing him to mock frown as he cast his eyes from one side of the crowd to the other. He seemed to want us to know that he didn’t care what we thought, and yet at the same time he looked at least a little bit surprised at the reaction. Didn’t these people used to love him?
Not that it was going to force him to fight any differently. For the first minute of the fight, Silva did what he’d always done. He circled around the cage. He feinted with his hands, with his shoulders, with his feet. He watched Griffin, like some killer robot gathering data and assessing vulnerabilities. When Griffin threw a distant two-punch combo and then finished with a head kick, Silva calmly moved his head out of the way with a complete lack of concern.
It was roughly a minute into the fight before Silva threw his first strike, catching a Griffin leg kick with his left hand and firing off a punch with his right, much like he’d done to quickly dispatch Irvin in his last trip to 205 pounds.
Griffin, for the time being, stayed calm. He tried a Superman punch. He pumped his jab. He resisted the urge to go chasing after Silva, which, as he explained in a later interview, would have played directly into the counter-striker’s hands.
“What’s he’s doing there is he’s getting you to open up, to stop, to get a little frustrated, to load up, so he can counter you,” Griffin said. “He wants you to throw him that big, slow, hard punch. And that’s what he’s doing. He’s appearing to be open — he’s feinting. He’s not going out trying to lead the fight. He’s trying to get you to (lead). He’s trying to suck you in.”
By the second minute of the fight, Griffin had begun to slowly ratchet up his aggression, but by then Silva was ready for more. For the first time in the fight he bulled his way forward with a multi-punch combination that mostly missed, but succeeded in getting Griffin to lash out with a left hook to check his progress. Silva evaded the punch, then came back with a right hook that dropped Griffin.
When Griffin got up, it was as if someone had hit the reset button on his offense, reverting him back to the kind of fighter he’d sworn he wasn’t going to be. As Silva threw more, so did Griffin. Silva gestured for him to come on, and Griffin did. Silva feinted with his hands at his waist, and Griffin unfurled a three-punch combination, hitting nothing but air. Silva came back with a left hand that sat him down again.
“I tried to punch him, and he literally moved his head out of the way and looked at me like I was stupid for doing it,” Griffin said in a radio interview a year later. “He looked at me like, ‘Why would you do such a stupid thing?’ … And then he punched me. … I felt like a kid trying to wrestle his dad.”
With Griffin on his back, Silva stood over him, peppering him with punches as the crowd howled.
“I think he really is trying to send a message here, Mike,” UFC commentator Joe Rogan said to his broadcast partner Mike Goldberg.
Silva stepped back with his hands on his hips, then offered to help Griffin up as he got to his feet. The gesture seemed vaguely mocking, but what could Griffin do? He grasped Silva’s hand, then went back to work firing punches. Strategy seemed to have gone out the window.
Griffin missed a left hook, then connected on a jab that earned him a disdainful look from Silva. Silva didn’t even bother to bring his hands up. Griffin lunged forward with a two-punch combination that Silva avoided almost with a casual shrug before responding with a short right hand in retreat. Griffin ran face-first into the punch and then collapsed onto the Bud Light logo, legs splayed out, hands waving at the air in front of him in a sort of international gesture requesting mercy.
He got that mercy from referee Kevin Mulhall, who moved in to stop the bout at the 3:23 mark of the first round. Silva celebrated with a jog around the cage as a dazed Griffin rolled to his feet and headed for the cage door with the referee and doctor trailing him. As Griffin’s team tried to stop him from leaving the cage, Silva climbed atop it and then jumped back down.
“‘The Spider is back!” Goldberg shouted on the broadcast.
When the camera flashed back to Griffin, he was out of the cage and on the arena floor, jogging back to the dressing room the same way he’d come. He wouldn’t stop until he was out of sight.
That exit would prompt even more Internet mockery than the result of the fight itself. Within days the memes flooded in. Griffin would later refer to it as the worst night of his career, made slightly worse by the fact that he later tested positive for the anti-anxiety drug Xanax, which required him to pay a fine and underdog a 30-day suspension after the fight.
Griffin would fight again that November, defeating Tito Ortiz via decision in a close fight. Afterwards, he apologized to Silva when he encountered him backstage.
“I’m sorry I ran out on you, it was no disrespect,” Griffin said. “I just wanted it to be a great fight and I was really disappointed when it wasn’t.”
Silva appeared to accept the apology, and why not? He’d won the fight and enjoyed his moment, maybe even more so without Griffin there. The GIFs of the finish that fans passed around on message boards after the fight made Silva out to be more Jedi than fighter, exhibiting the calm of a man who knew the future, or at least the next few seconds of it.
Plus, now the fans were off his back. He’d given them a show as well as a finish. These people loved him again – at least until the next one.
As for Griffin, he’d spend at least the next year answering nearly constant questions about the fight. How did it feel to lose that badly? What could he have done differently? Why did he run? He used humor to deflect the questions. He recounted telling one interviewer that he was merely in a hurry to get backstage because the interviewer’s mother was waiting for him there. He insisted that he never went back and watched the fight. He didn’t need to.
The thing he should have done instead, he would say in several subsequent interviews, was refuse to take the fight in the first place. This was Anderson Silva, after all. What was he thinking?
For more on the UFC’s upcoming schedule, check out the UFC Rumors section of the site.
“Today in MMA History” is an MMAjunkie series created in association with MMA History Today, the social media outlet dedicated to reliving “a daily journey through our sport’s history.”