Fear a motivating factor for Griffin
LAS VEGAS -- After more than a year off due to injury, Forrest Griffin will return to the Octagon on Saturday for a light heavyweight fight against Rich Franklin at UFC 126.
Afterward, win or lose, Griffin says he's planning something that could change his career. At 31, Griffin's best years as a fighter aren't behind him, but he admits he's peaked in a different way.
For years, he's surrounded himself with some of the best coaches in every facet of the game. What he's lacked, however, is that one mastermind, the "head coach" who he trusts to build his game plans and bring every part of his training together.
"I feel like I'm not getting better. I've already peaked in a sense," Griffin said. "After this fight, I'm going to travel and change it up. I have great coaches, but one thing I've never really had is that head coach -- a Greg Jackson, Matt Hume, John Hackleman.
"For a while, Randy [Couture] was that guy for me, but he's busy with his own life. I don't really have somebody that lays out the game plan of what I'm going to do each practice. I think that might be an answer for me."
Before Griffin approaches that, however, he says his focus is on Saturday. It's a big fight for him as he finally looks to build momentum off a decision win over Tito Ortiz in November 2009.
The layoff is the longest of Griffin's professional career, and one he's feeling the effects of mentally. On a recent conference call, Griffin told reporters he was feeling more nervous than usual for the fight against Franklin. He wasn't kidding.
"I'm scared s-------," Griffin told ESPN.com. "I'm scared of standing in front of 10,000 people again for the first time in a year. Of not having my timing, not having my rhythm. Fighting a southpaw. Fighting a tough guy."
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To help prepare Griffin for the fight, boxing coach Jimmy Gifford has him sparring regularly with Muay Thai fighters A.J. Williams and Anthony Brown. Both guys are young, quick and, most importantly, natural southpaws like Franklin.
Many are expecting the fight to be completely on the feet, as both Griffin and Franklin are known primarily for their striking. Included among that group is Franklin.
"You know me, I'm going to walk out and do my thing," Franklin said. "I walk to the center of the Octagon and start throwing punches and kicks. Forrest is typically the same kind of fighter, but I don't know what kind of game plan he's been working on."
Griffin's camp isn't afraid of engaging in that type of fight; however, it has to be fought on their terms. The more things look like a brawl, the more they'll likely favor Griffin. If it turns into a technical boxing match, Gifford said he'll be the one who's nervous.
"Anything that helps us close the distance, whether it's wrestling or the clinch game, we're going to use," Gifford said. "But people forget that Rich has a good clinch. They saw Anderson Silva demolish him there but Anderson does that to a lot of people. I have no illusions that we're going to just grab the neck and start kneeing him.
"If we can close the distance and work some dirty boxing, that's to our advantage. We're going to put our weight on him."
A win over Franklin (28-5) could catapult Griffin (17-6) into position to reclaim the UFC title he captured in 2008.
Before Griffin fights in the co-main event, the top two prospects in the 205-pound division will square off when Jon Jones (11-1) meets Ryan Bader (12-0).
With a handful of big fights already scheduled down the line in the light heavyweight division, Griffin knows it's likely he'll face one of those prospects in the near future -- possibly even in his next fight if he gets by Franklin.
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"I think if I want the chance to or not, I'm going to fight one of those dudes," Griffin said. "Those are the up-and-comers. If you want to be anywhere near the top, you have to square off against one of them."
Griffin has always been popular with fans, but following back-to-back losses to Rashad Evans and Anderson Silva two years ago, his chances of ever reclaiming the belt in that stacked division seemed to be dwindling.
That's still very much the goal, though, according to the fighter and those around him.
"He wasn't supposed to win the title the first time around, if you remember," Gifford said. "Styles make fights. Who would have ever thought [Mauricio Rua] would be world champion after he lost to Forrest? Stylistically, there are some tough fights out there but we can surely win that title again depending how the cards fall."
Brett Okamoto covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at bokamotoESPN.