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Stephan Bonnar checking off post-UFC bucket list, starting with pro wrestling

Stephan Bonnar Bellator media day Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

CM Punk will make his second UFC walk this weekend in his hometown of Chicago. The former pro-wrestling superstar meets Mike Jackson at UFC 225.

About 2,000 miles to the south west, a UFC Hall of Famer is taking the opposite path. Stephan Bonnar will perform in one of his first pro-wrestling singles matches Friday night at PCW Ultra, an indie show in Wilmington, Calif., against Steve Madison.

Bonnar, 41, retired from MMA after his Bellator fight with Tito Ortiz in 2014 and does not plan on fighting again. Pro wrestling has filed the void left by mixed martial arts for the man who fought against Forrest Griffin in the most influential fight in the sport’s history.

“It’s kind of like stimulating and I’m learning something new,” Bonnar told MMA Fighting. “Every time I go to class I feel like I learn something new and I’m getting a little bit better. It’s that same feeling I had during those first 10 years of MMA. I don’t know, I think we need that. You get stale in something, you stop learning, it stops being fun and you can tell.”

Bonnar initially thought he’d give WWE a go. But after traveling down to Orlando, the home base of WWE’s developmental operations, he decided to move in another direction, he said.

“You’ve gotta sign your life over,” Bonnar said. “It was real serious. I went to a bunch of shows and did my research. Just the general consensus is that it’s like you’re someone’s bitch. You’re an actor, you’re a pawn. You have to say what everyone else wants you to say. I don’t know. It’s not really you.”

With his 13 years of experience in MMA and fame from that genre, Bonnar figured that would mean something. His nickname from fighting was “American Psycho” and that’s something he thought WWE would be able to run with, but apparently that was not so. He has now turned his attention to indie shows, where he can do meet and greets with fans, sell merchandise, cut promos in front of the crowd and perform a match in the ring.

“Why if I do pro wrestling does it have to be, oh it’s either WWE or you’re a failure?” Bonnar said. “This indie scene is actually pretty cool and fun. The fans here are loyal and pretty great.”

Bonnar still lives in Las Vegas and he is doing wrestling training at the Future Stars of Wrestling school and The Snake Pit Pro Wrestling Academy, run by legendary Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Former WWE wrestler D’Lo Brown is one of his coaches.

“You’ve gotta go in and learn the game,” Bonnar said. “It’s a new art. In MMA, I just fell into it and fell in love with it. And it was all about being in martial arts. I grew up wrestling and doing tae kwon do and then really got into the Brazilian jiu-jitsu and the boxing and competing. I went to Thailand and did Muay Thai.

“Now, I just kind of say I’m learning the art of pro wrestling, because it is an art. You watch really good, top-of-the-line pro wrestlers, it’s an art. Its an art form. It’s no different than learning the martial arts.”

Matt Riddle is nine years Bonnar’s junior, but has been an inspiration, Bonnar said. Riddle left MMA four years ago after an embattled run with the UFC and has taken off as one of the top wrestlers on the indie scene. The only thing holding him back from WWE and other big shows like New Japan Pro Wrestling is his history with marijuana.

“He’s jumped into it full steam ahead and he’s probably the top indie guy now,” Bonnar said. “He’s really good. I love watching his matches. It gives me ideas. Like, oh my god, I can do that.”

Bonnar said he was a fan of wrestling in the 1980s before there was a UFC and tuned back in during the late-1990s Attitude Era of WWE. He always had an interest in one day becoming a pro wrestler, but ended up in MMA. Now, with his career over in that sport, he is checking off items that he has always wanted to do, including stand-up comedy and golf.

Wrestling, though, has moved to the forefront for him.

“I wouldn’t call it a career, this and that,” Bonnar said. “It’s just like MMA. I never said, ‘I’m gonna be in the UFC and be an MMA fighter.’ It’s just like, wow this is fun, I enjoy this. I want to get better at it. It’s the exact same attitude.

“I got that thing now. I got pro wrestling, a new thing that’s fun and stimulating and I can learn and see where it takes me. Why not? Just throw my energy in there.”

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