Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
It goes against almost every rule in marketing a fight to tell people ahead of time that the underdog has very little chance to win.
But in a commercial shot for Saturday's Anderson Silva vs. Stephan Bonnar main event at UFC 153 in Rio de Janeiro, the UFC has created a storyline saying almost exactly that. The idea is Anderson Silva is the best fighter in the history of the sport, which he very well could be, and that it would be the biggest surprise in history if Bonnar could win.
Usually fights are sold based on the idea of being competitive, even in cases where promoters frequently don't expect they will be. But this show is based on seeing the best fighter in the world work his magic, and the chance, however so slight, that if something unexpected happens, fans will be witness live to a historical moment - the biggest main event upset in history.
In the commercial, Bonnar was in booth at a restaurant with Forrest Griffin trying to get advice and tips on what to do. The theme was that Griffin, the fighter Bonnar is most associated with, and who was beaten badly by Silva three years ago, was giving his friend tips on how to handle this situation.
If nothing else, Bonnar has been a good sport in being a 14-to-1 underdog, the longest odds in a UFC main event in anyone's memory. And some of that commercial was actually his brainchild.
"It was really for Ultimate Insider," said Bonnar about the origin of what the past week has been talked about as, if nothing else, the most creative UFC fight commercial since the marketing campaign for Georges St-Pierre vs. Josh Koscheck two years ago. "They've shot stuff with us before. We'll have coffee together and shoot the s--- and they record us. They got a bunch of material from it, made three segments of Insider, and put stuff on the web leading to the fight."
As far as the storyline, that all but said Bonnar was completely over his head and with no winnable or workable strategy, one would be surprised who came up with that.
"That was actually me," said Bonnar days before what some feel is going to be his public execution as opposed to the biggest fight of his career. "I had an idea of showing how dangerous Anderson is. Before I even did that, I called Chael to give me stuff on Anderson. They ended up using that at the end."
Bonnar (14-7), admittedly at the tail end of his career, is only looking at the positives as the hours before fight time approach. In going to Rio de Janeiro, often referred to as the birthplace of the sport, called Vale Tudo long before the Japanese invented the term mixed martial arts a half-century later, he can now look at a sense of pride.
The then 28-year-old Bonnar's fight with Griffin fight in 2005 is often credited as the most important night in the history of the UFC. It was 15 minutes in time that couldn't have been more perfect. UFC's first contract with Spike TV was ending with the first-ever live show on regular national television. With the ratings for the first season of Ultimate Fighter being strong, the reality is it was almost a sure thing it would be renewed. But the fight was the exclamation point that guaranteed not only the renewal of the deal, but created a multitude of new fans in one night. All business numbers skyrocketed in the wake of a back-and-forth non-stop brawl that many to this day still consider the greatest fight in UFC history.
That week, the fight and the UFC became water cooler talk for the millions who saw it live, and millions more who watched replays over the next few days after hearing about it.
Bonnar at the time, without the benefit of perspective, had no idea the magnitude of what happened. To him right after the fight, there was no thought on what they had done for the sport, or how they had created history. He was instead depressed because he came out on the wrong side of a decision that was so close it was really a coin flip.
"I was bummed out that I lost. I didn't know how important that fight would turn out to be. It was too early to know," Bonnar said.
But seven years later, everything is at a different level.
"It's amazing," he said. "I see Anderson and Nike ads all over the city. The open workouts were packed. Everywhere I go, people recognize me. It's really a big deal. It's where it all began, the home of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the Copa Cabana Club, Carlson Gracie. It's great for me to see it. If I could have picked a place to fight Anderson, it's here in Rio."
Fighting in Rio de Janeiro before his career ends means more to Bonnar than it would to most fighters, because he's not just got a sense of the real history of the sport, but can recite it, almost verbatim. Bonnar trained under one of the early legends of the sport, Carlson Gracie, from when Gracie moved to Chicago in 2002 until his death in early 2006. Not only did he learn submissions and the ins and outs of fighting, but got the first-hand history from Brazil's biggest martial arts star of the 50s and 60s.
"It means a lot, we were going around Copa Cabana the other day, I went by the old Carlson Gracie school, and got some pictures," he said. "I've been here before. When I fought (Lyoto) Machida in 2003, we came to Rio to train for a couple of days. I enjoyed it more out of all the travel I've done and every city I've been to. Carlson's from here. I went to (Bonnar's current jiu-jitsu instructor) Sergio Penha's school. We saw Osvaldo Alves' school, he's 80, was Sergio's teacher and came up with Carlson. He came up with Ivan Gomes (A Vale Tudo superstar of the 60s and early 70s of a promotion that was big on television in Northeastern Brazil). They opened their schools and their students competed against each other. There's a lot of history here.
"Oh my God, legendary fights with Waldemar Santana, when Carlson saved the Gracie name. Santana was a big black Brazilian, really muscular student of Helio Gracie, and challenged Helio and beat him. Carlson lied about his age, he was 150 pounds and he beat the bigger Santana's ass at a soccer stadium. He could have submitted him a couple of times but he wanted Santana's face to tell the story. These were legendary stories."
While Bonnar knows that the Griffin fight was the highlight of his career, in hindsight there was another special moment, although he didn't realize it at the time. It was his win over James Irvin on a Spike Fight Night special in Las Vegas on Jan. 16, 2006.
"He (Carlson Gracie) died weeks after (Feb. 1, 2006) I submitted Irvin with a Kimura, his favorite move," he recalled. "I was devastated. I moved to Las Vegas to train with Sergio Penha. It's a small world. I've been with Sergio ever since then."
Bonnar, in his mind, was a retired fighter when he got the call to take this fight a month ago. He was in Florida training former pro wrestling star Dave Bautista for his debut. He immediately rushed into a camp that he compared to cramming for college finals.
"This is everything I asked for except the amount of time to prepare," he said. "I couldn't let that stop me. I couldn't get a fight with Rampage (Jackson) or another fight with Forrest. Instead I got a fight with everyone's top pound-for-pound guy in his backyard. I couldn't pass this up. I was about to less myself go."
He found Chidi Njokuani, the brother of UFC fighter Anthony Njokuani, to be his stand-up training partner to mimic as best anyone could, the style of Silva. While a lot lighter than Silva, Njokuani is 6-foot-4, and has an 80-inch reach (Silva's reach is 78 inches), and is very fast.
"The first week, I was out of shape, and it was really tough," Bonnar said. "The last couple of sparring sessions, I did a lot better. I got used to the speed and the distance."
Bonnar noted that both men only had a three-week camp, so conditioning will be an issue. His strategy is to go all out fast and force Silva to do the same.
"That's kind of the plan, to not fight conservatively," he said. "I'll take it to him. If I get tired, he should, too."
"I don't know what kind of shape I'll be in. I'm not going to change my style and slow down. I'm going to take it to him and fight my kind of fight. We'll see if the gas tank holds up. I think it will."
If there is something that can be pointed out in Bonnar's favor, it is that in his entire career, he has never been knocked out, and he's never been submitted. The hope is that Silva will not be in his best condition, and perhaps, if he can get the fight into the third round, he may have a conditioning edge. Bonnar did win the third round due to having the better conditioning when he fought Jon Jones, but had lost the first two.
"I'm not going to lay down and go fetal when I get hurt," he said. "I'm going to fight him. I'm know I'm going through hell, but he's coming with me."
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