LAS VEGAS – There are dozens of fighters who have a higher profile in the Ultimate Fighting Championship than Stephan Bonnar. There are just as many with a better record and probably that many more with greater skill. He hasn't won a UFC title and probably never will.
Few mixed martial arts fighters, though, have done as much to fuel the sport's popularity and extraordinary growth than Bonnar, who makes a return to "The Ultimate Fighter" on Saturday when he meets Igor Pokrajac at The Palms Resort & Casino in a light heavyweight bout as part of TUF 12 finale on Spike TV.
Bonnar's 2005 fight with Forrest Griffin in the TUF finale remains one of the seminal moments in the sport's history. UFC president Dana White has frequently said the company may not have survived had Bonnar and Griffin not engaged in that epic back-and-forth battle that, in many ways, began to open Americans' eyes to what the sport was about.
That fight with Griffin was hardly a one-night thing for Bonnar, though. Bonnar comes out of most of his fights drenched in blood, looking as if he were the old-time pro wrestling heel, Abdullah the Butcher. He's always willing to take three to give one. He'd beam at the end of fights, drenched in blood and sweat, reveling in the crowd's roars after each breathtaking slugfest.
Despite just a 6-6 record in UFC competition, he's done enough with his legendary fights, his charismatic personality, his quick wit and his television work to merit an induction into the UFC Hall of Fame one day. A Hall of Fame is meant to honor those whose accomplishments and contributions to a sport far exceed the average and no doubt, Bonnar has done that.
He said that returning to fight on an Ultimate Fighter card is like coming full circle. Bonnar, though, is a much different fighter. He's earned his black belt under noted trainer Sergio Pena. He's worked tirelessly with "One Kick" Nick Blomgren to tighten his striking.
He's trainer better and eating smarter.
"Before, for me, eating healthy was switching to Filet of Fish at McDonald's," Bonnar said.
He had knee reconstruction surgery prior to a loss to Jon Jones at UFC 94 on Jan. 31, 2009. When he returned to the gym, he was stunned to find how weak he'd become.
"Physically now, I'm much stronger than I've ever been," Bonnar said. "I never strength trained back then. I did a lot of strength training from when I was about 18 until about when I was 24. But once I started fighting, I kind of coasted on what I had already built up. I got by like that, but before the Jon Jones fight, I had my knee reconstructed and I was out a year. I came back and I got my cardio back, but I didn't realize how much I'd lost physically.
"After that fight, I went strength training again and I couldn't believe how physically weak I was. The amount of weight I was lifting, compared to where I was before, in my early 20s, was incredible. That made me realize that I'm getting old. I was out for a long time and my muscles atrophied. I lost a lot of speed and strength and it took a while to get that back. After that Jones fight, it's been about two years, about a year-and-three-quarters, I started training like that and I'm much stronger physically."
He said his submissions are better than they've ever been, and he believes he has benefitted from sticking with one set of coaches. He was like a vagabond in the past, hopping from gym to gym, but the problem was that he would pick up conflicting advice.
One coach liked one thing and another coach like something entirely different. But Bonnar said he's gotten consistency with his coaches and feels it's making him a more complete fighter.
"I'm comfortable now and I feel I have a good team, good coaches," Bonnar said. "I need that. Coaches are like father figures and you need that guidance and, for a while, I didn't have that. I was bouncing around to all these gyms previously and, to be honest, I kind of lost myself.
"I was listening to too many coaches. 'Oh, you shouldn't fight the way you do. You should be safer and try to outpoint guys.' That's just not me. I do better when I go for it, and when I'm in a dogfight. For some reason, the more grueling the fight is, as it progresses, I feel I settle in. With fatigue, my timing and coordination kind of actually improves. Watch my fights. I'm a slow starter, but once it turns into a dog fight, I start looking better and better."
Most of his fights have been highly memorable slugfests that have left the crowd roaring its approval. He hasn't won all of them, but the UFC brings him back because management knows it can count on him to deliver a pulsating match.
He's an eloquent public speaker and one of the wittiest fighters in the game. He's doing a terrific job as a part-time analyst on ESPN's studio show, "MMA Live," as well as doing color analysis on World Extreme Cagefighting broadcasts.
He's given back to the sport and the fans who support it in so many ways.
For that, he deserves to be honored by being inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame one day.