Stephan Bonnar’s Legacy is as an Important, But Not Great, Fighter

It wasn’t all that much of a shocker that Stephan Bonnar would officially retire from MMA following his loss to Anderson Silva. He had been in a state of semi-retirement already and the Silva fight was a last minute, save the card fight that gave Bonnar exactly what he wanted: one shot at glory. While it ended in devastating fashion, as Anderson Silva showed up and humiliated him before giving him the first true stoppage loss of his career, going into the fight Bonnar’s legacy was fairly secure. He holds the same place in MMA history that Curt Flood does in baseball: an important fighter but not necessarily a great one.

Bonnar’s importance comes from a singular moment in time when he captured the imagination of the combat sports realm. For 15 minutes he and Forrest Griffin engaged in a wild brawl that seemed to get more intense as the fight wore on. After a ground-breaking season of “The Ultimate Fighter” both men had become curiosities to a lot of people. The Indiana native and the University of Georgia football player weren’t big gate attractions in the UFC, and never really became them, but for a brief moment they put on a wild fight that left us begging for more.

Without Bonnar-Griffin 1, the world of MMA would look a lot different today. Dana White will always point to this fight as the one that caused the groundswell of support for MMA, and by proxy the UFC, and without Bonnar-Griffin 1 the first season of “TUF” winds up becoming a curious failure. That first season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” which grabbed a significant chunk of its audience by debuting after WWF’s “Monday Night Raw,” can be pointed to as a watershed moment in the sport in part because of the fight that capped it all off.

If there was a real hall of fame for MMA, not the UFC version of people they like at the moment, Stephan Bonnar’s inclusion would be as a member of that first season of “TUF” and nothing more. That first season of fighters, including Dana White’s now signature “Do you want to be a fighter” speech, is pivotal in MMA history. It doesn’t hurt that it had some fairly legendary fighters in the cast, either, as five fighters from the cast would challenge for UFC titles (Griffin the only one victorious) and more than half the cast had substantial runs in the organization. He was in one of the show’s greatest casts and properly would be immortalized for that achievement; there may have been better casts historically but they were the most important.

But here’s the thing: he wouldn’t be up for recognition any other way.

Was he a great fighter? Absolutely not. He was exciting most times, and took a round off an inexperienced Jon Jones, but he was always on the fringe of being a high level fighter. Anytime he fought someone who wound up becoming elite in the division he lost; those who beat him are a who’s who of fighters. There’s no shame in losing to Rashad Evans, Jones, Lyoto Machida, Griffin (twice) and Mark Coleman. Every single one on that last held UFC gold at some point in their career. A number of fighters who have been champions would trade their records for his any day, one imagines.

Was he very good? Questionably. Bonnar was always the gatekeeper to the stars; beating him meant you were ready to fight someone in the Top 10. The fact that his only true stoppage loss was to Anderson Silva speaks volumes. You could usually count on Bonnar for a good, crowd-pleasing fight and he was the consummate professional. He has a number of quality wins in his career but whenever he dabbled in the deeper waters he came away with a loss. “The American Psycho” was always a measuring stick of potential greatness in his opponent.

Bonnar as a fighter was someone you could respect: he was always on weight, maximized his athletic talents with hard work, spoke openly about the fight game and never fought dishonorably. Bonnar wound up being as good as he possibly could be; a lot of fighters can’t say that. It’s hard to dislike a guy like Bonnar, one of combat sport’s genuine good guys.

In a historical context his career is one of importance but not greatness.

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