LAS VEGAS – In 2004, the UFC was already in excess of $30 million in debt after just about three full years under parent company Zuffa's management, and UFC president Dana White was spending the final $10 million the company had to produce a reality show, "The Ultimate Fighter." He didn't even know if anyone would watch.
As they were putting the show together, nothing was working, and there weren't many prospects for a turnaround. All of the money they lost was coming out of their pockets. Zuffa had purchased the time on Spike and was responsible for 100 percent of the cost on everything.
White couldn't even find a small company to put its logo on the ring mat to defray a few of the costs.
"I was out talking to some protein powder company, trying to get them to sponsor the show," White, who was desperate and willing to try anything, said, chuckling.
The protein powder company wasn't interested. Nor was anyone else. White and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta were on their own, and they were hemorrhaging money.
It reached a climax when during the early days of filming, White got a call from Fertitta, letting him know the combatants were about to revolt and were refusing to fight.
That sent an extremely emotional White over to the gym to have a showdown with the recalcitrant stars of his show.
"This was our last $10 million," White said. "This was it. It was over. Our last $10 million, and Lorenzo says, 'None of these guys are going to fight.' I'm like, 'What? I'm on my way over there right now.' That's where the whole, 'Do you want to be a [expletive] fighter thing' came from."
Suddenly, White's voice jumps up several octaves. He's now shouting.
"This thing was OVER," he literally shrieked. "It was the end of my [expletive] life. OK? It was [expletive] over. Now, people think I went over there like some tough guy. No. My life was about to be over, all right? And I said, 'If you don't want to fight, then I'm throwing down with all you [expletive] guys. I was going crazy, man.
"People say, 'Oh, TUF, it's just a reality show.' No. This was more than a reality show. Everything was on the [expletive] line. The way Lorenzo puts it, it's like you're out gambling and you've gotten your [expletive] kicked all night and then you get everything you saved and everything you have and you put it up on the table and you tell them to cut the cards. That's what it was, and that was the tension and the craziness all season."
This is White's way of explaining why Stephan Bonnar, one of the season-one cast members, deserves to be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame on Saturday at the Fan Expo at Mandalay Bay.
There is a good case against Bonnar. Not only did he lose every one of his most significant bouts, he's a two-time steroid cheat.
There's a certain irony to the fact that on the day that Bonnar is going into the Hall of Fame, he wouldn't be eligible to fight at UFC 162 later that night because of a suspension imposed for his performance-enhancing drug usage.
None of it matters to White, though, who said repeatedly to a small cluster of reporters inside a Zuffa conference room Monday, that the UFC survived because of the epic battle that Bonnar and Forrest Griffin put on at the TUF season one finale.
None of the reporters in that room would have been talking to White without the first Griffin-Bonnar fight because the UFC would be defunct.
"I'd be over picking up cigarette butts from the parking lot at Palace Station and I'd be sleeping on the underpass at I-15," White said, beaming.
When the show first aired in 2005, it drew more than a million viewers per episode. At one point early in the season, it climbed to more than 2.4 million.
But White said nothing could compare to what happened in the Griffin-Bonnar finale match at the UNLV basketball team's practice gym.
The fight remains one of the greatest in UFC history, though fate intervened and almost prevented it from occurring. After an incident in the house where the fighters were living, White decided to remove the alcohol.
That didn't sit well with Bonnar, who decided to see if he could sneak out and bring some back with him. At the time, the fighters were living in a home in Southern Highlands, a tony enclave at the southwest tip of Las Vegas. It was sparsely developed at the time.
"Stephan Bonnar goes in [to the bathroom] and pretends he's taking a shower," White said. "Don't forget, guys: This was 2005 and this house was in the middle of the [expletive] desert in Southern Highlands. There was nothing there. This idiot climbs out the window pretending he's taking a shower and goes looking for a liquor store. He could have walked for four [expletive] days and never gotten to a liquor store. He comes back two hours later and climbs through the window again, where everybody is standing there waiting for him.
"I was going to kick him off the show. I was going to kick him off – and I didn't. Imagine if I had kicked Stephan Bonnar off the show that day, and him and Forrest never happened. I don't think people realize, really, really realize, what that one fight meant to this sport and this company. I look at it as, I'm inducting Forrest, and Stephan goes with him. It wasn't just Forrest. Both of those guys took us to this next level. He's being inducted for that one fight that took this thing to the next level."
Guys don't get inducted into other Halls of Fame based upon one good night.
But Dana White never operated by anyone else's rules. And without him, MMA likely wouldn't exist today, let alone the UFC.
So, in the strict standard, Bonnar doesn't belong in. He's a drug cheat and he has zero significant wins.
But it was his ability on that one given night that helped save the sport. And while everyone else is willing to look past that one night, White is not.
"Nobody knows more than me how much that fight meant," White said. "For us, that fight meant everything, and I never forget it."
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