When the bell concluded Nate Diaz versus Conor McGregor Part II, many new fans believed they had just watched the GREATEST fight in UFC’s history! It is undeniable that the main event at UFC 202 launched the sport into the main stream, but the events that were played out at the Ultimate Fighter I Finale on SPIKE TV, on the 9 of April 2005 ignited the passions of many fans who waited for many years for their beloved sport to reach the main stream.
A New Era
While Diaz Vs McGregor II set a new UFC record for Pay Per View buys, an estimated 1.2 and 1.5 million in North America ALONE!, Griffin versus Bonnar was available on Spike TV; The Ultimate Fighter season One Finale was the first ever UFC card to be available on a US cable TV channel for free. While millions worldwide ordered the UFC 202 PPV after months of marketing, the TUF One Finale was observed by peak audience of 3.3 million; in 2005 people rang friends and told them to watch the crazy events on SPIKE TV! To contrast the UFC’s fortunes between the two bouts, Griffin Vs Bonnar was held in front of three thousand people at the Cox Pavillion in Las Vegas, while Diaz Vs McGregor II was attended by over fifteen thousand people in the $375,000,000 futuristic-looking T-Mobile Arena. While UFC 202 is believed to have brought the company to the attention of the mainstream media, it is believed, in many chatrooms, that the Light Heavyweight contest of 9 April, 2005 may have been even more significant in the UFC’s history, it SAVED the company!
College should always be a time for discovery, my first contact with MMA was in 2008, after finding accommodation with a family who lived down the road from my college in Dublin, Ireland. One night, well early morning, after arriving in from a night out with college friends, I observed a housemate, Kevin, watching a low quality DVD copy of a fighter by the name of Forrest Griffin being introduced to the arena. The gloves were the first thing that caught my eye, they were different to anything I had ever seen before; having watched Irish boxers competing for years. I was used to watching short and stocky Irish boxers previously, but Griffin towered over the security and camera men that followed his walk to the ring…CAGE! My curiousity was peaked as Griffin approached the looming enclosure and I took a seat beside Kevin ’… just for a minute.’
Enter the Giants
The commentators, one who’s voice I knew from the Fear Factor but whose name escaped me, discussed Griffin’ unique personality and eccentric hairstyles. Then the commentators told the audience a story of a previous bout, also told in Griffin’s 2009 book ‘Got Fight?’, where Griffin’s left arm was broken while trapped in an opponent’s arm-bar. Griffin promptly knocked the opponent out using his right arm, while still trapped by the opponent’s attempted submission.
Next Stephan Bonnar, or ‘Stephen Bonnar’ as proclaimed by a youthful looking Bruce Buffer, made his way towards the cage; he looked smothered in an oversized hoodie with a crass looking ‘UFC’ emblazoned across the front. ‘The American Psycho’ looked determined as he made his walk to the cage.
The phrase ‘A battle of mirror images’ was mentioned in commentary. In contrast to my previous experience of boxing neither man had an official ranking and so my intrigue heightened. Both men were identified as sharing similar skill sets; ‘Well Rounded’ and a ‘Good Striker’. In a bout up with two competitors so well matched, I was compelled to watch the fight in order to see how the men would match up. Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg identified how both men had trained together, and had intimate knowledge of each other from living and training together. This made the fight more exciting to a person who had no previous experience of the Ultimate Fighting Championship!
Round One: Insanity
My first reaction to the events of round one was awe; the frantic pace both men set out was exciting, it was nothing like I had seen before in all the boxing I had watched. Griffin’s offensive combinations in the early striking exchanges really caught my eye. I was struck by the opening kick by Stephan Bonnar shocked me, as did the Muay Thai clinch that was initiated several times by each man; it was completely different to anything I had seen on the boxing and professional wrestling I watched previously.
Griffin’s counter punching was exciting to see, assisted by the hyperbolic commentary of Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg! The statements gushing from the commentary box added to my enjoyment of the opening round! As it probably did for the crowd at home watching the original broadcast.
The momentum shifted several times as both fighters remained In the pocket, attempting to impose their will; two minutes in Griffin pursued Bonnar with some chin seeking striking as he pursued a first round Knock Out.
Kevin was startled as I Jumped off the couch as Griffin initiated a takedown, but it was Bonnar that gained a full mounted position! I will hand-on-heart confess my pure ignorance of Brazilain Jiu Jitsu and wrestling at the time as I did not know what could happen next. Rogan explained and I let out a ‘Whoop!’ as the fight returned to the feet.
I was astonished to see Forrest grow tired and now it was Stephan Bonnar that advanced landing heavy blows! It was then Forrest Griffin did the unthinkable, he SMILED! From that moment I was a Griffin fan! Bonnar pulled guard after Griffin threw knees into the latter’s stomach, I punched the air as Griffin got Bonnar’s back with seventeen seconds to go. As he sought to lock in the rear naked choke the buzzer concluded the first round. I sat back into the chair and rubbed my sweaty palms on the legs of my jeans. Kevin asked if I wanted a glass of water, with a grin!
The second round began slow and tentative … for forty-five seconds! The glass of water spilled onto the coffee table as Griffin landed a takedown. But both men returned to the feet almost as quickly. Before I knew it Griffin’s nose was cut, I thought the fight would be finished. But then again Griffin SMILED! Herb Dean paused the fight as a medic checked Griffin’s condition.
After the fight recommenced the pace picked up again! Within a ten second period Griffin had Bonnar backed up and it looked like Griffin would finish victorious, within the next few seconds Bonnar had taken the centre of the octagon and was in the ascendancy. The second round seemed to swing in this back and forth scenario.
With two minutes to go Bonnar delivered knees that rocked Griffin. It HAD to finish here; Griffin looked like he was tiring as both men were wrestling against the cage. But Griffin’s now legendary cardio, kicked in to help him survive the final two minutes of the round as Bonnar pressed him looking for the finish.
Between rounds two and three both men returned to their corners exhausted, Stitch Durant immediately began working on Griffin’s nose. Rogan suggested both men receive contracts as a reward for their output in such an exciting contest. Bonnar stared across the octagon at a bloodied Griffin, who in turn stood up and returned the gaze. Griffin took a deep breath and readied himself for the third rounds.
The spilled water had long now been soaked up by a tea towel, and Kevin suggested Bonnar was winning, I confessed I hadn’t a clue and just hoped to see more! Both men answered Herb Dean’s call to resume the fight. Pace was slow, and both men were cautious. Chants of ‘Forrest! Forrest!’ rang throughout the arena. Griffin seemed re-energised and took the fight to Bonnar: winning the clinch and landed jumping some knees. Both men exchanged strikes; with three to four combinations whilst moving forward. Bodies were tired but their will drove them forward.
As the third round approached the third minute both men were content to counter punch, Griffin retained the centre of the octagon, then Bonnar, then Griffin! I was nervous, rose from the couch and began pacing the room, eyes glued to the screen.
As the fourth minute of the third round reached its conclusion the crowd rose to its feet and cheered the two men on as the fight approached its final minute.
Bonnar threw a wheel kick with twenty-five seconds remaining! With ten seconds to go both men threw as many punches as they could in a bid to secure victory!
An exhausted Joe Rogan announced ‘I say hand out two contracts’ as the buzzer signalled the end of the round. Kevin laughed as I echoed Rogan’s sentiment of being ‘honoured’ just for witnessing the fight.
As a fourth round was possible both men were being attended to by their respective corners. I was hooked, invested in the fate of two men I had only known existed for under twenty minutes!
I punched the air Griffin winner by unanimous decision, ‘Stephen’ Bonnar dropped to the ground. The crowd responded with dissent, but were elated and gave both men a standing ovation when it was announced by Dana White that BOTH men were to receive contracts! Both Griffin and Bonnar embraced, what a sport! Two great competitors showing respect after a fifteen minute contest that would definitely affect them for the following week or two!
Looking Back & Legacy
Critics now will identify the raw technique of each man as many a punch missed its target; I would argue the two men were well rounded when you take time to consider the underground reality of the sport at the time: again check out Griffin’s ‘Got Fight?’ to read his colleagues hilarious reactions to the injuries and bruises he incurred while training Jiu-Jitsu. But this fight will rightly be remembered for the sheer determination and will to win shared by both competitors:
“That fight was fought in both of our heads. For three rounds, it was a nonstop flurry of punches and kicks. The only reason either one of us kept going was that each of was certain his toughness would break the other. I have since talked with him about that fight, and it was funny because we were both thinking the exact same thing: I’m catching him with some good shots, and eventually he’s going to get tired of this. He’s going to break. However, with both of us being too stupid to quit, neither one of us did.” (Griffin, Forrest. Got Fight? 2009.)
It was with great pride that the fight, and the competitors, that introduced me to the sport were inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2013. But I am only one of many thousands that can share that sentiment. Perhaps a decade later it is still not known how many viewers of that fight, either live or delayed, have strapped on gloves, shin pads, adorned Gis and rashguards following that night in 2005. I for one am happy to say that it was my initiation into the sport! And what a way to start a journey!