In memory of Stephan Bonnar
Josh Werle, Sports Editor
Former mixed martial artist and professional wrestler, Stephan Bonnar, passed away on Dec. 22, 2022 at the age of 45. His death is presumed to have been related to heart complications. Although Bonnar never won an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) title, his contributions to the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) and the UFC organization were invaluable.
There are many figures from outside the cage who contributed to the UFC’s success over the years, including the organization’s president, Dana White, and former owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta. Although the time and money that White and the Fertitta brothers had given the UFC in the early 2000’s was important, ultimately, the success of the business hinged on the fights, and the fighters themselves.
After the UFC had nearly tanked as an organization, the Fertittas and White decided to throw up one last hail mary, a reality TV series titled The Ultimate Fighter. White and the Fertittas deserve much credit, but when it comes down to the fight — and fighters — that saved the UFC, Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin deserve this distinction.
The Ultimate Fighter’s inaugural first season is commonly referred to as the greatest of the 20+ seasons that were to follow, and culminated with Griffin and Bonnar competing for a coveted UFC contract. Sixteen fighters competed on the show, and would square off against one another in elimination style matchups.
After working their way through the bracket, Griffin and Bonnar duked it out in a three-round fight that effectively saved the UFC organization. Although Griffin won the contest, the fight was a back and forth tilt, and the action was nonstop. The viewership ratings went through the roof, and The Ultimate Fighter TV show was immediately greenlit for a second season.
For their efforts, Griffin and Bonnar were inducted into the UFC hall of fame in 2013. Their fight for the UFC contract was inducted into the UFC’s “fight wing” and has cemented both competitors as legends of the sport. After their fight, Griffin went on to have a successful UFC career, even winning the UFC’s light-heavyweight championship.
Although Bonnar achieved some success, he never managed to beat the elite competitors of the sport, and slowly faded away from the sport of mixed martial arts. After retiring from MMA competition with a record of 15-9, Bonnar continued his journey in the combat sports world by making various professional wrestling appearances for a number of years.
Griffin may have had a more successful UFC career overall, and has worked extremely hard to maintain his position as one of the sport’s most notable figures.
Bonnar, however, never received the same kind of notoriety from the fanbase.
In an episode of the Believe You Me Podcast, Anthony Smith — an ESPN analyst and current sixth ranked light-heavyweight UFC fighter — said that he believed the sport of MMA took more than it gave back to Bonnar.
“The sport has given back to [Griffin] by giving him a position in it to still be relevant and still continue to guide younger fighters. Whereas Stephan didn’t get that opportunity.”
Although Bonnar may not be as widely known as his Hall of Fame counterpart, his contribution to both the UFC and the sport of mixed martial arts cannot be overstated.
Him and Griffin both left it all on the line when they competed for The Ultimate Fighter’s prize, changing the entire landscape of the sport in only 15 minutes.