Griffin, Ramirez could steal Belfast spotlight

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Forrest Griffin doesn't like traveling and doesn't like losing. He's had a taste of both recently. The popular winner of Season 1 of "The Ultimate Fighter" looks to bounce back from a shocking loss to Keith "The Dean of Mean" Jardine when he takes on hard-hitting Hector "Sick Dog" Ramirez Saturday night in Belfast at UFC 72: Victory.

Former middleweight champion Rich Franklin faces Japan's Yushin Okami in the main event Saturday at the Odyssey Arena. But Griffin and Ramirez could steal the show. Both light-heavyweights like to bang and are motivated coming off losses -- Ramirez to James "The Sandman" Irvine at UFC 65 and Griffin to Jardine at UFC 66.

The pressure Saturday is squarely on Griffin, the only other fighter featured on the UFC 72 posters other than Franklin and Okami. Griffin is the favorite and far higher up the MMA food chain than Ramirez.

Strong punching and good wrestling is Griffin's assessment of Ramirez, who started strongly in his only other UFC fight -- against Irvine. But he was caught midway through the second round and went down. The Sacramento slugfest was named fight of the night.

Trainer Juanito Ibarra, who masterminded Quinton "Rampage" Jackson's win over Chuck Liddell, says Ramirez was held back in the past by poor training -- in large part due to juggling a full-time construction job and the responsibilities of a wife and three kids.

Ramirez (6-2-1) took six weeks off work to train for this fight under Ibarra.

"I'm telling you, he's ready," Ibarra said. "Forrest is going to have a fight. … I think Hector's looking the best he's ever looked right now."

That challenge comes at a time when Griffin is second-guessing his game in the wake of the loss to Jardine. Swinging away worked against Stephan Bonnar in the TUF finale, but in the UFC there's always a new gunslinger with heavy hands. Jardine found that out himself the hard way at UFC 71 when he was felled in 48 seconds by newcomer Houston Alexander.

Griffin (13-4) has realized that perhaps he has to bring more to the table that just a good pair of fists and bad intentions.

"Maybe I don't have the chin I thought I did," he said. "And maybe I need to re-evaluate my game plan for this sort of thing."

Griffin has had time to stew over the past, with a staph infection forcing him to pull out of a UFC 70 bout against Lyoto Machida.

Friend and fellow fighter Rory Singer, who faces middleweight Jason MacDonald on Saturday's card, believed Griffin has learned from the Jardine loss.

"I think he's realized he doesn't have to be the guy who stands in there and slugs it out; that he's got really good boxing, strong kicks, good wrestling, phenomenal grappling," Singer said. "I think he will put it all together for this fight, realizing what he did wrong against Jardine. I don't know how he'll beat Ramirez, but I just don't see him losing this one. He's too strong-willed and he's worked too hard and trained too hard to let another one slip out of his grasp."

Ramirez, 31, isn't taking anything for granted with his opponent.

"He's a tough cookie … getting to the chin is going to be a challenge," he said.

He said he will take his lead from Griffin: "A lot of touching is going to be going on, whether it's banging or grappling. There's going to be contact."

Against Jardine, Griffin found himself in uncharted territory -- on his back and unable to defend against the blows raining down.

"I've been knocked out a bunch, like out cold, but I've never been on Queer Street before -- where my body wasn't doing what I told it and I didn't really know how to react to that," Griffin said. "I sort of freaked out and started acting like a little b---- right in the cage."

Griffin, 28, was not in much of a talkative mood Thursday, attending a pre-fight news conference with a welt under his left eye.

"Thank you, guys. It's a pleasure to be here. I'm really excited to fight. Good day," Griffin said when called to the microphone. Then he returned to his seat and sat down.

The California-based Ramirez was savoring the moment more, marveling that a Mexican was in Ireland.

"I'm still looking for another Mexican out here. Haven't found one yet," he said, joking.

Travel disagrees with Griffin, however.

"Man, I don't like traveling for vacation, let alone for work," he said. "I moved out to Vegas so I can fight in Vegas. I hate traveling, I can't pack right, I always forget [training] pads I need. I always forget stuff. I can't get distilled water … there's sodium in the food, I don't know what the hell people are talking about."

But he seemed to be looking forward to his postfight plans.

"I'm going to get drunk -- on some Irish beer," he said. "That's what I'm going to do."

Neil Davidson is general sports editor for The Canadian Press.