In his mind, Stephan Bonnar was retired. After speaking with his boss Dana White, his belief was only further cemented. Their viewpoints on fighting, it seemed, were just too far apart. To White, there was no point to a fighter sticking around if he didn't have a desire to fight for a championship. That was at odds with the philosophy of Bonnar, who didn't necessarily care about a belt, but was more interested in the specific experience of each fight.
On its surface, White's stance seemed out of whack with some of the things he publicly espouses. For example, he prefers fighters who compete in exciting fashion no matter the outcome over those who win ugly. And Bonnar -- one-half of the most important fight in UFC history wholly due to his blood-and-guts approach -- has always been more the former than the latter. But when it comes down to it, White is a promoter, and promoters sell champions. And if Bonnar wasn't interested in being one, well, what good was he?
Faced with the reality of White's position, Bonnar had mentally moved on. He had other things to worry about. He and his wife were expecting a baby, and after beating Kyle Kingsbury last November, he had divorced himself from the gym for months.
After that layoff, he had actually just returned to light workouts for a couple of weeks when he got an unexpected call.
"It really came by surprise, honestly," he said on Thursday. "I campaigned for some big fights but I couldn't get them, so in my head, I was really trying to get over the whole fighting thing."
The whole fighting thing was about to give him the biggest opportunity of his life. And wouldn't you know it, the opportunity was one more in line with his philosophy than White's, a fight that was more about a fun matchup than one to determine divisional hierarchy. He would get to measure himself against the man many consider to be the sport's all-time pound-for-pound king, Anderson Silva.
That was a long way from where he was in that moment, training with MMA neophyte Dave Bautista, a former pro wrestling star in the WWE who was preparing for his cagefighting debut. In just one month, Bonnar would go from training with a 44-year-old rookie to competing against arguably the best the sport had ever seen.
"Yeah, a chance to fight the greatest pound-for-pound in the world in a place like Brazil is just crazy," he said. "It feels like I'm in a movie."
Bonnar is no fool. He is aware that he'll be considered a historic underdog at UFC 153. He also knows the limitations of his fighting style. That doesn't make it any less exciting for him to step in with Silva. After all, this is what he wanted. A fight against a big name. A fight against someone who mattered, even if it wasn't for a title.
It was almost a vindication of his career philosophy.
"I just did it for fun, not really for any belts," he said of his career, speaking in the past tense like the retired fighter he was just a few weeks ago. "And now I’m fighting the greatest pound-for-pound guy who’s been the champion for a long time and it’s not for a belt. And you think if I pull off an upset against Anderson Silva, it’s not going to be as sweet because it’s not for a belt? Hell no. It’s going to be the greatest moment of my life."
Of his strategy, Bonnar says little. He acknowledges he won't be able to "out-finesse" Silva, and that he'll have to be able to eat a punch to land one. That's been easier said than done against Silva, who boasts the highest percentage of landed strikes in UFC history, and who has also been extremely difficult to hit from a standup position.
Meanwhile, it is a different kind of opportunity for Silva. One to do a favor for the UFC. To headline another show in his country. To add to his legacy by fighting a bigger man on short notice. But, he says, it is not the prelude of something more to come. Win or lose, he plans to return to middleweight and defend his belt, with no thought given to possibly fighting 205-pound champ Jon Jones. For him like Bonnar, it is a one-time experience.
The difference is that while Silva has much at risk, Bonnar can fight free of burden. A few weeks ago, he was retired. His thoughts were more about being a father than being a fighter. That may make him a huge underdog, but it also makes him excited to create another indelible image.
"That makes it all the more sweet," he said. "I enjoy reading the negative tweets, how I don’t stand a chance. I pull it off and those people's jaws are going to drop the widest."