Forrest Griffin vs Stephan Bonnar: The most important fight in UFC history that helped Dana White put the company on the map


Forrest Griffin vs Stephan Bonnar: The most important fight in UFC history that helped Dana White put the company on the map

They could barely stand. Their bodies were bruised and battered and their faces bloodied. The thousands who crammed into Las Vegas’ Cox Pavilion were now on their feet, cheering and marvelling at the epic they had just witnessed.

Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar didn’t know it then, but the 15 punishing minutes they had just put themselves through were the most important in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s history.

Forrest Griffin, above, right, against Stephan Bonnar has been called the most important fight in UFC history

The fight game may be littered with hyperbole, but this is no exaggeration. If it wasn’t for Griffin v Bonnar, Dana White – the UFC president – has joked he would probably be sweeping up cigarette ends and sleeping rough.

It was thrilling, it was exciting and not only did it keep the boss off the streets, the fight was precisely the shot in the arm the needed for the UFC – the biggest promoter of mixed martial arts (MMA) – to become the juggernaut it is today.

Prior to this 2005 epic, the UFC was dying and White, together with owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta III were battling to keep it alive.

The fight sent White on the way to be able to make the lucrative crossover fight between Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather happen

This fight, according to commentator Joe Rogan, was MMA’s answer to Hearns v Hagler, and was the culmination of a brilliantly simple reality TV show called The Ultimate Fighter, better known as TUF.

“It’s like the Real World but with fighters,” Griffin explained, referring to MTV’s long-running reality series, when asked to describe the show that launched him and 15 other amateur fighters into the big time.

Under the watchful eyes of MMA royalty Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture, who acted as coaches for the series, the fighters lived under one roof together.

Divided into middleweights and light heavyweights, they trained together and competed against one another in elimination fights every week with a final taking place at a live event and the winner walking away with a six-figure contract with the UFC.

For the Fertitta brothers, whose company, Zuffa, bought the struggling UFC for $2m in 2001 and installed White as president, the show was the last roll of the dice. It had to work.

Brothers Lorenzo, left, and Frank, right, bought the struggling UFC for $2m

Previously, millions of dollars had been heavily invested in trying to develop and promote the sport of MMA, but the trio encountered strong opposition at every turn as they fought to have their events sanctioned. Nothing was working.

It appeared the UFC would forever be tainted by the remnants of a previous era when ‘there are no rules’ was emblazoned on its posters. Mud sticks and it was blocking a path to progress.

The brothers were smart businessmen. They knew they had something big on their hands; it was just a matter of convincing others to see it, too. Mainstream America needed to wake up and start spending money on pay-per-views.

Frank and younger brother Lorenzo were born into business, attended top universities and had the ideal mentor in their dad, Frank Fertitta, Jr., who founded Station Casinos in 1976.

White, however, was the polar opposite. After scraping through school he began training boxers but had no experience of running a company as large as the UFC.

He did, though, learn from Lorenzo, a school friend he had re-connected with when he began running his pal’s private gym in the basement of his office in Las Vegas.

This, as Nick Gullo reveals in his book, Into the Cage: The Rise of UFC Nation, was White’s lucky break. It allowed him to see the process by which companies are launched and he watched Lorenzo work, quietly picking things up along the way.

Dana White has been with the company since the Fertitta brothers bought it for $2m in 2001

Then, as a result of his management of MMA fighters Tito Ortiz and Liddell, White alerted the brothers the organisation was up for grabs and the UFC was soon theirs.

It was an odd looking trio, on paper at least.

Four years on and after repeatedly hitting brick walls, it came down to reality TV. Buoyed from the brothers’ other reality TV success, American Casino, it was hoped TUF would finally stop the company haemorrhaging money.

But getting it on TV was proving just as difficult as getting events sanctioned. No television network wanted it. Apparently America would not buy into a new sport and it was a unanimous “I’m out” from telly execs.

It looked bleak, but instead of cutting their losses and selling up they decided to produce the show themselves, stumping up $10m of their own money to cover the costs.

There wasn’t even a company willing to pay to have its logo on the Octagon mat during the elimination fights.

“This thing was like our Trojan Horse,” White explained in the documentary Fighting for a Generation.

“We’re going to put fights on TV, but put them on through reality,” he added.