The MMA community has been mourning the loss of Stephan Bonnar since the news of his death initially broke on December 24th. As with the passing of any remotely public figure, there tends to be an inclination to highlight solely the positives — perhaps even to the point of embellishment — and gloss over any of the negative aspects of their life. In this regard, Bonnar is no different.
Initially introduced to the MMA world as a part of the cast of the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter. This reality TV series was the first time MMA was shown on cable television (Spike TV), and Bonnar was among the first batch of stars formed in this new era. The Ultimate Fighter finale saw Bonnar face off with Forrest Griffin, in a fight that would become a thing of legend — with the bout being inducted into the Fight wing of the UFC Hall of Fame.
One aspect of legends is that they are greatly exaggerated, if not wholly fabricated stories. Now, the throwdown between Bonnar and Griffin definitely happened, but recollections of the bout are squarely at odds with reality. This purportedly epic barnburner is actually a sloppy brawl, with laboured 1-2s whiffing at air as often as they connected with their targets. The fight was, at the time, a genuine Moment, but it was absolutely not a good fight by any objective measure. It was a primitive display of a sport that has evolved significantly in the 17 years since.
The fight mattered because The Ultimate Fighter had given us a chance to get acquainted with these people, and it was as violent as it was sloppy. As much as I criticize the technical merits of the bout, I don’t want to take away from the physical toll it took on both men. Make no mistake about it, they battered each other. It was a spectacle we hadn’t become accustomed to seeing on live television, even in the mid-aughts — the zenith of edgy TV pandering to the 18-34 male demographic.
The claims regarding the fight’s ratings draw, like an old fisherman’s tale, become more fantastical with each retelling. The finale for the second season of The Ultimate Fighter drew even better ratings; the actual draw for the TUF 1 finale was the main event, between Ken Shamrock (freshly returned from a high-profile WWE run) versus Rich Franklin — a middleweight title fight. The TUF 1 finale’s ratings also weren’t rising to record heights in real-time, the word of mouth hype took some days to circulate following the show’s airing.
That bout was, in many ways, the high watermark of Bonnar’s UFC career. He remained on the roster for another 7 years; he’d win some, he’d lose some. While he was never in the title picture, Bonnar had maintained a reasonably high profile and fan-favourite status. He would go on to win 8 fights in the UFC and losing 6, with his final bout coming in the form of a last-minute fill-in against Anderson Silva in October, 2012. The fight ended in a first-round TKO loss to the then-middleweight champion. There was no shame in losing to Anderson Silva at this time, regardless of how one-sided and ridiculous the finish was. Unfortunately for Stephen Bonnar, he subsequently tested positive for PEDs (his second time doing so) which earned him an unceremonious exit from the UFC and his broadcasting duties.
Two years later, Bonnar would have his final MMA fight, an extremely underwhelming split decision loss to fellow UFC exile Tito Ortiz in the Bellator promotion. There was an attempt to run some sort of pro wrestling style lead up to this fight, but it was so incoherent and baffling that all I can do is link this story from MMA Fighting.
It culminated in a masked associate of Bonnar’s being revealed to be Justin McCully wearing a weird mask Under that mask — yes, there were two of them for some reason — was Justin McCully. This was made all the weirder by the fact that no one would recognize Justin McCully in the first place.
None of it made any sense, and the fight did nothing but steal 15 minutes from everyone unfortunate enough to have watched it. It was so bad, it feels like the MMA community collectively made a silent pact to never speak of it again.
At this point, Bonnar’s value was exhausted; failing to make an impact in Bellator, and showing the wear and tear of a long fighting career with a style predicated on grit and toughness as much as — if not significantly more than — technical skill. Less politely put: he was shot, with a 15-9 record and few prospects.
At this point, Bonnar fell off everyone’s radar. There was talk of a pro wrestling career, but nothing significant ever materialized on that front. Aside from the aforementioned induction into the UFC Hall of Fame, the only time I saw or heard any mention of Stephan Bonnar was when a video of him and Phil Baroni, both daydrunk, were hanging out in a Vegas strip club and rambling about crypto — this would have been 2017 or 2018, when magic Internet beans were at record high values.
The next “sighting” was a deeply unsettling article on MMA Fighting, detailing an incident involving Stephan Bonnar being denied treatment at a hospital, during the peak of COVID-19. The short version is: after he went to the hospital seeking pain medication, Bonnar claims he was refused service due to his vaccination status and documented his meltdown on video. (The videos were subsequently removed from Instagram after the service suspended his account.)
The above mentioned article paints a vivid and depressing picture: an old, banged up fighter, incurring further injury attempting to eek out a living and using powerful painkillers to mask debilitating chronic pain. It’s a harrowing and also incredibly common tale in any athletic pursuit, let alone combat sports where serious injury is effectively a guarantee.
I can’t claim to know Stephan Bonnar personally, or what demons he may or may not have been battling. He certainly did not seem to handle his blackballing from the UFC well, physically unable to compete at a high level and lacking the ability to pivot to analysis or media work. Whatever he was doing, it was on the margins and largely out of view; one half of the fight that legend claims “saved the UFC” and he had all but vanished.
And then, December, 2022, it was announced that he was dead. One could speculate as to the likely causes of death, but there’s no point. Stephan Bonnar was an important figure in the history of the UFC, and really was done dirty over the Anderson Silva fight. The man stepped up on very short notice to fight Anderson Silva at the peak of his powers. Sure, he popped for steroids, but he was even honest about that — he was using PEDs to recover and wasn’t even an active fighter at the time.
After the UFC chewed him up and spat him out, the downward spiral just seemed to continue. Stephan Bonnar, Forrest Griffin, and the whole gang of characters from the first couple of Ultimate Fighter seasons showed the UFC that they can run main events with cheap talent — a lesson the company has turned into billions of dollars annually. Somehow, against all odds, the latter of the two was able to parlay some of Dana White’s fleeting generosity, and his own grindset mentality, into an executive position at Zuffa that he holds to this day. Conversely, Stephan Bonnar is deceased and we will never know how different things would be if the UFC actually cared about the fighters it exploits for its blood money.