Many prognosticators could not envision Forrest Griffin leaving the cage with the Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight title belt. But Griffin has made a habit of bucking conventional wisdom, and he did so again Saturday in Las Vegas with a surprising unanimous decision over Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.
By all accounts, Griffin was supposed to be a relatively light night's work for Jackson. He wasn't as fast as Jackson, didn't hit nearly as hard and had never been in a UFC title bout.
Before the fight, Jackson had difficulty taking Griffin too seriously as a fighter. The only victory of note on Griffin's résumé was a third-round submission in September of Mauricio Rua, whom many considered the best 205-pound fighter in the world at the time.
The win over Rua, however, did not convince Jackson that Griffin was an elite light heavyweight. In Jackson's eyes, Rua was a shell of himself when he faced Griffin. Also, there were questions about Rua's conditioning heading into that bout.
"You could see [Rua] wasn't the same guy who fought in Pride," Jackson said a few days before taking on Griffin. "If [Rua] was the same guy I fought, and Forrest beat him, I would've been more impressed."
Jackson has a better opinion of Griffin after spending five rounds in the Octagon with him. He is now impressed with the skill and determination Griffin brings into the cage. Furthermore, Jackson has a newfound respect for Griffin.
"I didn't think Forrest could hang with me," said Jackson, who fell to 27-7-0. "I said if Forrest could get past the third round, I would respect him. I respect him."
But giving Griffin his overdue respect doesn't mean Jackson is conceding defeat. Regardless of the judges' cards, Jackson does not believe he lost to Griffin.
"I feel I won the fight. My cornermen said they feel he won the second round and possibly the last round, but that I had won the rest," Jackson said. "I feel if you are the champ, somebody has to beat the champ -- but it was unanimous. I'm not a judge."
It is a point of view that should not easily be brushed aside. Jackson won the first round, wobbling Griffin at the halfway point with a left-right combination.
He would drop Griffin with a left uppercut in the final minute of the round. But Griffin made it interesting by using his jab to maintain distance and numerous kicks that weakened Jackson's left knee.
Those kicks would play a major role in the second round. The constant punishment caused Jackson's left knee to buckle and Griffin was able to get a takedown seconds later.
Once on the ground, Griffin used his jiu-jitsu to keep Jackson in a defensive posture. But despite fighting with one weak leg, Jackson was able to keep his guard tight and avoid being hit too hard and too often by Griffin's elbows.
Heading into the third, each fighter had a round in the books -- Jackson the first, Griffin the second. Then things got a bit more interesting.
The third round was close, but Jackson should have gotten the edge. Griffin delivered more punches and kicks, but the majority were blocked. Jackson, on the other hand, landed the harder shots.
Griffin didn't take the round from Jackson. And that is what a challenger is supposed to do -- take the champion's belt, round by round. Jackson wasn't given credit for being the champ. That is just not right.
It was much of the same in Round 4. Jackson started the action by landing a hard shot that stung Griffin.
Shortly thereafter, the two would find themselves on the ground -- with Jackson in full mount. Griffin would get a triangle, but Jackson lifted and slammed him to break free.
That's defense, and it counts just as much as offense. Besides, Jackson also won the offensive exchanges during that round -- opening a nasty cut over Griffin's right eye. It is another round that should have been given to Jackson.
And Jackson's handlers rightfully saw it that way. Between the fourth and fifth rounds, head trainer Juanito Ibarra assured Jackson he was winning.
"Don't worry about nothing," Ibarra said. "You're controlling the fight, you're controlling the fight."
After hearing those words, Jackson didn't come out with a sense of urgency in the fifth. But he should have.
Griffin was the more aggressive fighter and more effective puncher in the fifth. Only near the end of the round did Jackson initiate action, landing a few punches that found their mark. But Griffin won the final round and, as everyone would learn shortly afterward, the fight.
All three judges favored Griffin. Adalaide Byrd and Nelson Hamilton had it 48-46. In Roy Silbert's opinion, the fight was a more lopsided 49-46. Each judge gave Griffin a two-point second round.
"I won and I'm happy with the way things turned out," said Griffin, who improved to 16-4-0. "But I think we are going to have to do it again. Every punch he threw hurt."
Griffin was respectful of the former champion, but his words did nothing to ease the pain Ibarra was feeling. As far as the trainer was concerned, his fighter got a raw deal.
"How can Quinton not win that fight?" Ibarra said. "You had to give him the first, third and fourth. If you give [Griffin] the third, man, I don't know how you can do that.
"Rampage brought it to him, and you have to take the fight away from the champion. He did not take that fight from Rampage."
In this case, it is hard to argue with Ibarra's point of view. At the very least, this match should have been a draw.
Franklin McNeil covers boxing and mixed martial arts for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.