Stephan Bonnar, perhaps the most famous journeyman fighter in UFC history, confirmed Tuesday night what he had hinted about for months: at 35, his career inside the cage was over.
Being left momentarily paralyzed by a knee to the solar plexus, and quickly finished by the greatest fighter of his time in Anderson Silva, may not have been the storybook ending he was hoping for. But that's why it's called storybook, because it rarely happens.
Bonnar was never a top championship contender. He also never beat a top championship contender, although he did come very close to beating one future champion. In his 15 UFC fights over a little more than seven years on the roster, he only had two main events, one a few weeks ago as a late substitution because every other top light heavyweight at the time was either booked or injured.
However, he'll always be an important part of UFC history because of "the fight."
It was April 9, 2005, and UFC was on live regular television for the first time. The first season of Ultimate Fighter saw a company and a sport bleeding tens of millions of dollars suddenly become a subject of curiosity as almost two million viewers weekly were following a reality show about a sport many had vaguely heard about, but very few understood.
A bunch of unknown, but actually fairly talented fighters were put in a house together. One urinated on another's bed. There were drunken arguments. Two guys sprayed a garden hose on one who was sleeping, and immediately became branded for their entire careers as bad guys. There was the kid out of his league who got bullied. There was the guy who was accused of stealing T-shirts. There was the resident weirdo. And suddenly, the survivors were fighting on a live show.
Few remember, but the battle between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar for a UFC contract was not the main event that night. That was reserved for a forgettable fight between a legend of the past, Ken Shamrock, and a star the company was trying to create, in middleweight champion Rich Franklin. But in reality, they were not only the main event that night, but there is an argument they had the most important fight in UFC history. Even if you think that point is overstated, what can't be argued was it was the perfect fight on the perfect night, and the sport's growth escalated quickly starting that night. In 15 minutes of battling back-and-forth, they made UFC go from a subject of curiosity to the beginnings of a several-year run as the country's fastest growing sport.
UFC President Dana White has claimed that after the first season of Ultimate Fighter, which was essentially a time buy on Spike TV, that there was no guarantee and no deal for anything further. He credited Griffin vs. Bonnar for the getting them a long-term contract with Spike TV, signed that night shortly after the fight ended. With the benefit of hindsight, one does wonder how the history of the sport would have changed had not such a spectacular fight happened on that night.
Really, it may not have been all that different. The ratings for the first season of Ultimate Fighter were strong. On that broadcast, before the fight even took place, the commentators were plugging a second season, with two new weight classes, and announced they were taking applications for cast members.
However, two days later, Spike was already in negotiations to confirm a third season, and to not only run more live events, but looking at running old fights from the library. Spike TV, particularly after losing the WWE franchise a few months later, was soon to be almost the UFC network with some weeks having half of their prime-time hours devoted to airing the reality show and endless replays of big fights.
"We think we're on to the next big emerging sport," said Kevin Kay, Spike's Executive Vice President of Programming, right after that fight took place .
The first season of TUF aired on a Monday night, starting at 11:10 p.m., but with the good fortune of coming directly after World Wrestling Entertainment's Raw, meaning a couple of million men between the ages of 18 and 34 were already tuned to Spike TV. And the vast majority stuck around, and became the original audience base for UFC.
There was a question if they would follow UFC to Saturday night, and not only did they, but they drew the company's largest audience to date. About 3.3 million people watched the fight live. Word of mouth was so strong that with a number of replays over the next few days, almost 10 million people had seen it by the end of the week.
In looking back at my own notes from that night, it was already being touted as one of the best fights in MMA history.
In a story after the fight, I wrote:
"It was an amazing slugfest, not quite as crazy as the Don Frye vs. Yoshihiro Takayama standard (a legendary Japanese fight), but this was far more skilled, with two strong strikers throwing bombs for three straight rounds. Nobody dropped, but Griffin, in particular, was on the brink of exhaustion more than once. It was a cross between the Frye-Takayama insanity and the type of boxing brilliance that comes along in fights like Gatti-Ward, closing in on Rocky movie fight level. It's rare that a match going the distance and having judges decide on a close fight could be a perfect ending. But it was. This was a fight when everyone watching didn't want to see either man lose, or the fight to be stopped. The emotion is usually when someone is in trouble, your gut says you want to see someone get put down. In this case, it didn't matter who you were rooting for, when someone was in trouble, you wanted them to stay up. Ultimately, there was a winner on the scorecards in Griffin. But there was no loser."
Bonnar very easily could have been judged the winner that night. It really was a fight that was too close to call.
The winner was billed at getting a $100,000 contract with the UFC. While this wasn't the case, the public thought the loser was going home, never to be seen again. But as a thrilled White came to the ring after the decision, he said what probably every fan was hoping he would say, that there were no losers, and Bonnar is also getting the same $100,000 contract with the UFC.
It was the consensus fight of the year. At nearly every UFC show, right before the main card starts, a video, which gets updated periodically, is shown to those in attendance on the big screens. The video features all the modern stars. But no matter how many times it's changed, the highlight of the video was, is, and perhaps will always be watching Griffin and Bonnar slug it out before a modest crowd of about 2,000 fans at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas, with a younger White, Lorenzo Fertitta, Chuck Liddell and others giving them a standing ovation. As time has gone, the footage, perhaps to show it as a piece of enduring history, now airs in black and white. A few years back, it was voted by fans as the greatest fight in UFC history.
Griffin ended up becoming the most famous alumnus of the first season of Ultimate Fighter. After beating Bonnar, he went on to become the UFC light heavyweight champion. He headlined a number of pay-per-view shows, and for several years, was one of the three most popular fighters in the company. A number of the other fighters disappeared into obscurity. Others became stars. Kenny Florian and Nate Quarry have both since retired due to injuries and have gotten jobs as fight analysts, something Bonnar has also dabbled in. With Bonnar joining them in retirement, it's a reminder that those still active, like Griffin, Josh Koscheck, Mike Swick and Diego Sanchez, that time isn't on their side either.
Bonnar won eight of his next 14 fights in a career with high and low points. He once won a round from Jon Jones in 2009. He once fought Lyoto Machida in the jungles of Manaus, Brazil. He was personally trained by the legendary Carlson Gracie, and knows his Brazilian Vale Tudo history, and was thrilled going back to Rio de Janeiro a few weeks ago to see once again where it all started. He was only stopped once in those 15 fights, but it took Anderson Silva to do it.
Bonnar later had a rematch with Griffin, not nearly as memorable, or as close. Griffin took a clear-cut decision, Bonnar tested positive for steroids after the fight and had to sit out nine months on a suspension.
On Tuesday night, when word of his retirement broke, he tweeted, "Huge thanks to every UFC fan out there! All I ever wanted was to bring ya'll some fun. Hope you were entertained."
The vast majority of fighters are never going to be champions, or even title contenders. Most are going to be names that fill out cards, and hopefully entertain the fans. Most will be forgotten. A few will be vaguely remembered. Bonnar, on the other hand, will always be the journeyman fighter who was an integral part of the sport's history.