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SAN DIEGO — Stephan Bonnar was always a company man. The light heavyweight from the Chicago area always said the right things and did what he was told as he parlayed his legendary 2005 fight with Forrest Griffin into a career which appeared to end with an induction into the UFC Hall of Fame.
"I've always been funny, a nice guy, say the right things, a go along to get along type of person," Bonnar said at a recent Bellator MMA media day and fan festival.
But with time to sit back and think about things in the wake of his retirement, Bonnar decided it was a time for a change in approach.
"Just being retired and watching everyone try to be so proper and PC," said Bonnar, who meets Tito Ortiz in the main event of Bellator's Nov. 15 event at San Diego's Valley View Casino Center. "Not just in MMA, but in other pro sports, you just want to say 'C'mon man, tell me what you really feel.' "
No one's going to accuse Bonnar of holding back any time soon. He morphed from afterthought to lightning rod in September, when he marked his return to the sport with a torrent of negativity aimed at Ortiz, a fellow UFC Hall of Famer. In a live interview at Connecticut's Mohegan Sun, Bonnar attacked everything from the way Ortiz allegedly treated former friends and training partners to Ortiz's relationship with his family.
"I never really fought anyone I didn't care for," Bonnar said. "And with Tito it was like, I never really liked him to begin with, but then after hearing from all these people who got burned from him, then it's like I really didn't like him."
Bonnar's tirade toward Ortiz, which was during a segment simply designed to announce their Spike TV bout, led to a physical altercation. Reaction to the scene was decidedly mixed, as many suggested the entire incident was staged by the promotion and Spike, or at minimum, was simply a bad attempt at pro wrestling schtick by Bonnar.
Love it or hate it, the ploy worked: Here's Bonnar, two years after retiring in the wake of a loss to Anderson Silva and failed post-fight drug test, out of retirement and headlining a significant fight card. Ortiz vs. Bonnar headlines a card which will air on Spike, head-to-head against the pay-per-view UFC 180.
For his part, Bonnar knew he was taking a calculated gamble and was ready to live with the consequences.
"I wanted to sell the fight in a creative, entertaining way, but I wanted to tell the people how I really feel," Bonnar said. "I really don't care for him and I'm going to let the world know it. I knew it would cost some fans and it would piss people off, but ultimately it would, people would talk about it, people would want to tune in and see the fight."
If there was any collusion between Ortiz and Bonnar to help sell the fight, Ortiz isn't letting on. The former UFC light heavyweight champion contrasted Bonnar's antics with his main rival during his heyday, Ken Shamrock, who happened to be in attendance at the Bellator media event.
"See that guy right over there?" Ortiz asked, pointing across the room at Shamrock. "He knew how to sell a fight the right way. The right way is not talking about a person's family. This fake, this phony, this embarrassment, the things Stephan Bonnar has been doing, I just shake my head in embarrassment for him."
For his part, Ortiz claims he barely even knew Bonnar's name back in the day.
"I didn't know who he was," Ortiz said. "I knew him by one fight that he lost on 'The Ultimate Fighter' and that's it. But I guess being MMA's most wanted, people want to fight you. That's what you get. He wants to get his bills paid for. The only way he can do that is to hoot and holler and bark like a chihuahua as loud as he can. I know his bite is not that vicious."
Whether Bonnar (15-8), who had won his previous three fights before the loss to Silva, will be able to back up his endless stream of talk, remains to be seen. The Las Vegas resident appears to be taking his training seriously. He's surrounded himself with much of Ortiz's old team, from manager Dave Thomas to former UFC fighter Justin McCully to longtime trainer Paul Herrera, who cornered Ortiz (17-11-1) for his comeback fight in May.
But until the moment of truth arrives, Bonnar's not going to stop running his mouth.
"I was retired for two years and I had all those fights in the UFC and I never really fought anyone I had disdain for," Bonnar said. "I never really played that card. I never came out and told it how it was, I said [expletive] it, I really don't care, I'm going to come out and say it how it is, and speak from my heart, and say this guy is an [expletive], I don't like him, and if you don't like me for that, then [expletive], go buy some Punishment [Ortiz's clothing line] gear, I don't care."
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter @DaveDoyleMMA.