Stephan Bonnar never fought for an Ultimate Fighting Championship title, but he will go down in mixed martial arts history as one of the sport's most important figures.
On Saturday, Bonnar, a Munster native currently living in Las Vegas, was inducted into the UFC's Hall of Fame alongside the man he will be forever linked to, Forrest Griffin. The induction ceremony took place as part of the UFC Fan Expo at Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, where the two were welcomed in by UFC President Dana White.
The pair became just the 10th and 11th members of the UFC's Hall of Fame, which includes, with just one exception prior to Bonnar, all former champions or UFC tournament winners.
Bonnar settled into retirement following a loss in October to Anderson Silva, considered by most to be the greatest fighter in MMA history. But after the fight, he tested positive a second time for steroids and was suspended by the UFC. Bonnar walked away from the sport with a 15-8 record, including an 8-7 mark in the UFC.
But his induction wasn't about records or the couple of black eyes on his resume. It was about the 15 minutes he shared with Griffin in 2005 that turned the UFC's fortunes around.
As contestants on the first season of "The Ultimate Fighter," Bonnar fought Griffin in the light heavyweight finals, and their back-and-forth war, which ended with Griffin's hand raised, but Bonnar also getting a UFC deal, is said to have changed all kinds of opinions about the UFC. The company was operating in the red, and White and co-owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta have said that if "TUF 1" wasn't a hit — the UFC funded it on Spike TV itself as paid programming — the promotion may have gone under.
But thanks to Bonnar and Griffin, it wasn't just a hit, but a massive one. The UFC's financial fortunes changed almost overnight.
"This was the most important fight in the history of this company," White said at the induction ceremony. "You know where we were back then and what was happening with the sport. We were $44 million in the hole into this business. Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin come out, and during six minutes of that fight, 12 million people tuned in. There has never been a more important fight in the UFC. There has never been a more important fight, except for maybe UFC 1, in the history of mixed martial arts."
Bonnar, who wrestled at Munster High School before going to Purdue, knew early on he wanted to be a fighter.
"I first saw the UFC in my junior year of high school, 1994," he said after being inducted. "The minute I saw it, it hit me that this is the coolest thing ever. Ever. I remember going to wrestling practice after I saw the VHS of UFC 2, and trying to armbar people and getting yelled at by the coach. After college, I started training jiu-jitsu at the Carlson Gracie jiu-jitsu school (in Chicago). I never thought I'd be part of the UFC. Fast forward a couple years. I got lucky enough to be chosen for 'The Ultimate Fighter.' Something inside me, I knew the show would be a hit."
After that first loss to Griffin, Bonnar went on to win his next three fights before dropping a close decision to future light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans. He then was booked for a rematch with Griffin. He lost that one, too, and tested positive for the steroid boldenone. He admitted the infraction, saying he was trying to recover from an injury rather than build crazy muscle mass.
He won two fights after his return, but then suffered a knee injury that led to a trying rehab. When he finally came back, he dropped three straight – but in classic "American Psycho" style, won three straight after that before his non-title fight with Silva.
The up-and-down way his time in the UFC transpired after starting his pro career 7-1 with seven wins at the Hammond Civic Center was typical Bonnar.
"My whole life, I've never been the best athlete," he said. "I was always average in everything. I had two older brothers who beat my (butt) a lot and they were better than me at everything. A big part of me was wanting to become a big, bad ninja so I could kick their (butts). That motivated me a lot, and that was the beauty of MMA. You didn't have to be great at everything. You could be pretty good at everything and be a good MMA fighter."
Bonnar likely will stay close to the sport in retirement, and probably close to the UFC, as well. A t-shirt company, plus a business that deals in officially licensed shirts for the UFC as well as original artwork keep him busy.
And so, too, does family life with the recent birth of his first child, a son. A son named, of course, Griffin Bonnar, in honor of the fellow fighter he'll always be linked to.
"If there's anyone in the UFC I could've picked to lose that fight to, it would've been Forrest Griffin," Bonnar said. "As painful as it was to lose that fight, I'm so happy for him because he's a great guy."