Stephan Bonnar (15-8) felt relieved. It was the spring of 2005 and the light heavyweight had just lost a razor-thin decision in the finals of the first ever Ultimate Fighter (TUF) series to Forrest Griffin.
The stakes were high for fighters like Bonnar and Griffin, all throughout the TUF season. The winner in each weight class (Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez met in the middleweight finals) was to get a UFC contract.
Sitting with Cagewriter after a lunch in his home of Las Vegas, Bonnar remembers the pressure at that time feeling great. After laying it all out in a desperate attempt to win the light heavyweight UFC contract and losing the decision, he felt a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
The feeling wouldn’t last.
Bonnar and Griffin both fought so well that, moments after the decision was rendered and announced, UFC president Dana White came into the Octagon and announced that both fighters were receiving contracts. “The whole time, we were all convinced that one winner in each division would get a contract,” Bonnar remembers.
“We tried so hard to win it, and when I lost, I was relieved. I thought, ‘cool, I guess I can get back to my life now.’ Then, Dana offered me the contract as well, and it was kinda scary. I thought, ‘Ok, looks like I’m going to do this for a living.”
Bonnar had fought extensively from his then home of Chicago, but did so for virtually no money. It was the college-educated fighter’s day job, and continued studies that paid the bills.
Suddenly, that was about to change. Bonnar’s professional life and identity was about to be swallowed by MMA. “April 9, 2005,” he says of the TUF 1 Finale date.
“That was really when I saw myself as a professional fighter.”
About a decade of big fights, wins, injuries and other tribulations later, Bonnar retired for a second time, and was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. Stepping away from active competition was not easy on Bonnar, however much his body may have appreciated the break. But his mind, which had almost his whole identity wrapped up in being a professional fighter, had a harder time making the adjustment.
“Yeah it was hard,” he says, of retirement.
“I had stepped down from fighting, and had a position with the UFC, was getting my health insurance and all that. Then, I was offered the fight with Anderson [Silva]. Once again, opportunity knocked. I thought that I might as well jump on it. Things didn’t work out, though.
“I ended up getting suspended, losing my job, and all that. That’s when it really crumbled. I took stock and realized that every part of my identity was UFC-related. I was doing a lot of TV work, I had the t-shirt company, I was working with the company. My whole life was UFC, and when that all got wiped away, I had to look at what was left. It was a hard thing to go through. It was good for me to have had to deal with it, then, though. I got into day trading and finally found something outside of fighting that I could pour my heart and energy into. It got easier. It was kind of a relief to be able to pour my energy into something outside of fighting, and the day trading also became kind of my security blanket, financially. There was no longer the pressure of, ‘I’ve got to win to support my family.’”
Of course, Bonnar is back in fighting. At least, for now.
Juice worth the squeeze
“Robocop” will face off against fellow UFC Hall of Famer Tito Ortiz (17-11-1) on November 15 inside a Bellator cage. Bonnar was offered the bout with the former world champion after his suspension was over, saw an opportunity to fight without all the usual down sides, and jumped at it.
“It does seem like the last couple years of fighting was all about getting wins so I could parlay that into getting a big fight where I could then let it all hang out and give a crowd-pleasing fight,” he says.
“With this, I’m catapulted right to that point of a big fight.”
Bonnar says that the feeling, and thrill, leading up to the fight with Ortiz feels about the same as his big UFC bouts did. However, preamble isn’t why he stepped out of retirement – the fight itself is why.
“It feels pretty much the same,” he says.
“But, when it comes down to it, it’s going to be me and him locked in a cage. It doesn’t matter what banner it’s under. The rules are the same.”
Bonnar has always loved a great scrap, and never wilted at the prospect of training hard to be prepared for them. However, over a decade of training and fighting has taken its physical toll on the man.
He says that for his final couple years in the UFC, training camps began to tax him more than they were worth. After some time off, however, he has begun to enjoy the grind again.
“To be honest with you, the last couple of years, training started to become burdensome,” he admits.
“I had a lot of injuries, pain. I got staph [infections] all the time. It was something that I was getting sick of. I had to take a break from it. Now, it is not as bad. I’m a lil’ more tolerant of it. I have a silver lining, now. For so long you just push through injuries, and surgeries, and suck it up. I had a nice break from it and I do feel a little refreshed. I’ve been pushing hard these last couple of months.”
Bonnar has done much of his training with coaches Sergio Penha and “One Kick Nick” Blomgren in his home of Las Vegas. In addition to that, Bonnar says he focused on wrestling with intensity, at the outset of his camp to prepare for Ortiz.
Bonnar knows a fight is unpredictable, and he can’t be certain how things will play out in his return bout against “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy.”
That said, when he visualizes the fight, he does have a simple, and beautiful set of images play through his battle-loving mind. “I just imagine sticking and moving,” he says.
“Shutting his take downs, down, and hitting him in the face.”