If you would have told me last year, around the time that Stephan Bonnar failed a steroids test for the second time in his career, that he would soon be selected for the UFC Hall of Fame, I would have shrugged my shoulders. This is the fight business. Fifteen-to-one underdogs win, fighters get title bouts coming off losses. Crazy, illogical things sometimes happen.
On Saturday, just hours before Bonnar's last opponent Anderson Silva tees it up with Chris Weidman, Bonnar will stand in front of a crowd at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center and receive that honor.
It has been over a month since the announcement, yet there continues to be much uproar and angst over Bonnar's induction and what it means for mixed martial arts, and what kind of message the sport is sending to the larger sporting public and the mainstream, and … well, it all sounds so melodramatic.
The UFC Hall of Fame is the promotion's hand-selected ring of honor; nothing more, nothing less. It doesn't necessarily reflect the opinions of the sport's observers; it certainly doesn't speak for them. It is the opinion of the UFC only. Complaining about who the UFC, or more specifically, Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta, pick for their private fraternity is like complaining about who they invite on to their private jet.
If they want to have a two-time cheater on board, that's their business.
The UFC Hall of Fame is essentially a lifetime achievement award, with "lifetime" used loosely, given that the sport is only 20 years old, and the Zuffa incarnation of the UFC is even younger. It does not define greatness in any way, shape or form.
For the record, Bonnar is by no means an all-time great. He finished with a 15-8 career record, and went 8-7 in his 15 UFC bouts. His most significant victory came against Keith Jardine, and he never beat a top 10 ranked opponent during his 11 years as a pro. But he served a significant role on April 9, 2005, when he fought Forrest Griffin like hell for 15 minutes, in the fight that finally planted MMA's roots in the national sporting landscape.
"Nobody knows more than me how much that fight meant," White said recently. "For us, that fight meant everything, and I never forget it."
White has always said that Bonnar and Griffin would have a place with him for life, and Bonnar's inclusion in the Hall of Fame just proves White's loyalty to those who always remained loyal to him.
Some of the anger stems from the misguided notion that Bonnar's inclusion will stain the sport. But the UFC hall already has two fighters who were busted for steroids at some of their careers, past rivals Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock.
Some protest Bonnar for his lack of achievement. Fair enough, but again, this is the UFC honoring their own. It is far different from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Pro Football Hall of Fame and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, which are privately run and whose inductees are voted on by panels mostly comprised of media members and other Hall of Famers. In other words, they are independent. They have high thresholds for admittance. For the UFC Hall of Fame, the threshold is basically the collective opinion of two guys. The UFC Hall of Fame is nothing like those institutions, not even close. And it doesn't need to be. I don't even know if it's trying to be. It's not like White hides his reasons for including some and excluding others. It's just the name that seems to make people crazy.
Nearly every team in every sport, however, either runs their own Hall of Fame or retires numbers as a way to honor the best of the organization. Those honors are hardly ever scrutinized, because there are no real criteria for selection. It's more based on feeling, which is why Sam Mills can be in the Carolina Panthers Hall of Honor despite playing only three years for them, why light-hitting shortstop Zoilo Versalles was similarly honored by the Minnesota Twins despite a .242 career batting average, and why Pete Maravich had his jersey retired by the New Orleans Hornets despite never playing for the franchise.
Those honors are partly about achievement and partly about personal connection, and neither is definitively more important than the other. We watch sports to see greatness, whether it's in the form of a man, like Anderson Silva, or a moment caught in time, like Bonnar-Griffin. If the UFC chooses to formally recognize the former or the latter, that's their prerogative. Think of it less like a "Hall of Fame" and more like the UFC's ultimate company award, and perhaps some of that angst over the inclusion of Bonnar will evaporate.