Story by Anthony Springer Jr
Photo by Chris Cozzone
When the theme song from the Rocky franchise, “Eye of the Tiger” blares through the speakers of the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois, it will signal the entrance of Tyson Griffin. With a record of 12-1 (5-1, UFC), the 24-year-old Griffin comes into this Saturday’s UFC 90 riding an impressive wave of success since his 2006 UFC debut.
A lot of hard work took place before Griffin’s ascent up the ranks of UFC’s lightweight division. Before pounding Octagon adversaries, the Sacramento born fighter started out wrestling before moving on to a life of construction work. Even after he began training Jiu-Jitsu making a living as a fighter came at a snail’s pace.
“It was a slow transition,” Griffin says of his MMA beginnings. “I wasn’t even watching UFC when I started training jiu-jitsu. I come from a wrestling background, high school and a year at a junior college. At the time I was working construction and fighting for a living sounded like more fun than pounding nails. I was working and fighting and slowly made a name for myself and started fighting full time.”
Griffin amassed an 8-0 record in his first two years of fighting, but one fight in particular proved noteworthy in his growing list of wins. In 2005, in what would be his third professional fight, Griffin met another rising star in current WEC featherweight champion Urijah Faber. Not only did Griffin win the contest, he scored a devastating TKO victory in the process. To date, he is the only fighter to beat “The California Kid.”
“At the time I knew it was a big deal,” Griffin says of fighting Faber. He admits that he didn’t see Faber becoming the star he’s become in the sport, and seems surprised that the fight is still talked about today. “I dropped down in weight class to fight a guy with two belts and it was my third fight. At the time it was a huge deal.”
With both Faber and Griffin’s stock rising, and both the UFC and WEC under the same Zuffa, LLC. umbrella, a Faber/Griffin rematch, on paper, seems like a block buster matchup.
Not so fast, Griffin says.
“It was a terrible weight cut. I felt unhealthy; I wasn’t 100% at that weight class. It was an opportunity and I ran with it.”
After racking up another five victories, including a TKO win over Duane “Bang” Ludwig, the UFC came calling and Griffin accepted, making the jump to the biggest mixed martial arts promotion in North America. His UFC debut was short lived, as it took a mere 1:50 in the Octagon to finish off David Lee via rear naked choke at UFC 63. The win earned Griffin “Submission of the Night Honors” and the bonus money allowed the still growing fighter to permanently relocate to Las Vegas.
While many fighters move to Las Vegas to train, one need only take a look at The Ultimate Fighter reality show to see how easy it can be for a young, up and comer to completely lose his or her mind in the city of sin. According to Griffin, avoiding making an ass of one’s self comes down to one thing: discipline.
“It’s all self discipline,” he says of maintaining himself. “They say Vegas will make or break you in whatever profession you’re in and fighting is definitely one of them. There’s a lot of downtime and if you have no self discipline you’ll be off the wagon so to speak. You have to be willing to make sacrifices. To me, partying is a small sacrifice to avoid for eight weeks.”
The sacrifices certainly paid off, as Griffin took home “Fight of the Night” honors three consecutive times for bouts with Frankie Edgar (Griffin’s only loss), Clay Guida, and Thiago Tavares. Griffin will ride the same wave of hard work into the Octagon when he faces former UFC lightweight champion Sean “Muscle Shark” Sherk.
“I don’t think he’s one of the biggest,” he says of his upcoming opponents’ muscular, yet small frame. “He may be the most explosive. He’s a short guy. In that aspect, I don’t think he’s walking around at 200 like some of the guys are. I know that sounds crazy. [Gleison] Tibau must be about 190, he was huge.”
Talk of 200 pound lightweights aside, Griffin’s training camp included adequate preparation for the explosive Sherk, who is known for his speed and cardio. “I train with Gray Maynard every day. He’s one of the most explosive wrestlers I’ve trained with; I’m prepared for a grueling three round battle.”
A victory over the 32-3-1 Sherk would almost guarantee Griffin a title shot down the line; he’s taking everything in stride. With a stellar record of his own, he remains calm and collected about the match—even after being reminded that a win over Sherk puts his name up there with Matt Hughes, B.J. Penn and Georges St-Pierre.
“When you put it like that, it’d be really cool,” he says of a potential win. He seems to catch himself after being briefly caught up in the idea. “But we’re all human. I don’t think of anybody as a big name. We’re all human and have to put our work in. That’s what I plan on showing Oct. 20.”
At times, Griffin’s outlook on the fight game belies his age, but occasionally displays a youthful attitude when talking about his career. “I don’t plan very far ahead. I’m just enjoying life and enjoying fighting.
“I’ll keep doing this as long as I’m having fun.”