By Elias Cepeda
Yesterday morning I watched the video of Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar’s UFC Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which is embedded at the end of this post. Really, I watched to see and hear from Bonnar.
Nothing against Forrest. I love watching the guy fight and he embodies everything that is great about MMA, but I’ve always had a special interest in “The American Psycho.”
Bonnar, or “RoboCop” as they used to call him back in Chicago where he trained with Carlson Gracie Sr. and began his career, was just the second guy I ever interviewed for a professional story, back in 2005. The guys you’ve covered for nearly the entirety of their careers always hold a special place in your heart.
I interviewed Bonnar a number of times over the first few years of his UFC career but since then I have only connected with him a couple times for interviews. The last time I spoke with Stephan was over the telephone for a feature at UFC.com when he came out of retirement to fight Anderson Silva last year. It has been a rough roller-coaster year for Bonnar — who sort-of retired after putting together a three-fight win streak in the Octagon, came back only to be shredded by Silva at UFC 153, retired again (for real this time), had a son, and failed a drug test for steroids — and I was interested in what he had to say at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
Especially since so many writers have taken the occasion to criticize him and give the UFC flack for including him in its Hall of Fame. I’d always taken it for granted that he and Forrest Griffin both would one day be inducted.
It just made sense. The two of them lifted The Ultimate Fighter and the UFC out of obscurity with their epic slobber-knocker in the season one finale. Griffin won, but Bonnar fought so well that he too was given a UFC contract.
In all, Bonnar would have two razor-close decision fights with Griffin, who himself made history as the first-ever fully unified (UFC, Pride, Pride Grand Prix) linear 205-pound champion. For nearly a decade, Bonnar fought the best and toughest the UFC had to offer and the only guy to truly out-class him was Anderson Silva. That fight, of course, happened because Bonnar was willing to come out of retirement and help save an event for the UFC and the fans.
There’s good reason to believe that professional mixed martial arts would not exist today if not for the UFC. There’s also good reason to believe that the UFC would not exist today if not for TUF 1, and the unforgettable climax that Griffin and Bonnar provided in their finale bout.
Modern MMA is a young sport. Pioneers and saviors of sports always have and always will deserve a place in those sports’ halls of honor. George Mikan and his peers were nowhere as good as, say, Tim Duncan and his, but there’s ample space in the Basketball Hall of Fame for all of them.
Griffin and Bonnar both are on a very short list of truly integral pioneers and saviors of MMA. Even if they hadn’t both gone on to build very long and successful careers in the UFC during which they competed against the best of the best and rarely looked out of place, Stephan and Forrest earned their place in the UFC Hall of Fame long ago.
I’ve read the critics’ articles. At best, most are poorly focused and self-important. Few present well-balanced ideas as Seth Falvo did a few days ago on these pages.
Critics of Bonnar and his induction seem to simply glance at Wikipedia and recite his record (15-8 overall and 8-7 in the UFC) with disdain as if the thing speaks for itself. As if we didn’t learn from the likes of BJ Penn and Randy Couture that MMA isn’t a sport for perfect records, even among all-time greats.
Critics of Bonnar’s induction into the Hall of Fame yell, “steroids!” Bonnar tested positive in 2006, and then again after he fought Silva on short notice.
Singling Bonnar out for his steroid use is either annoyingly sanctimonious or reveals an overall ignorance on the part of most media about how prevalent banned performance enhancing drugs and procedures are in sports, including MMA. Banned substances and procedures are not the exception in MMA and all high-level sports, but rather the expected standard — perceived as necessary by athletes because we demand that they train and compete harder, faster, and more often than is naturally possible.
Did Bonnar use steroids? Yes.
And he served out punishments for doing so. The larger point is that the odds tell us that so did most of his opponents. Demonizing individuals while ignoring overall prevalence won’t help us deal with the actual scale of problems.
In the end, much of the Bonnar and UFC Hall of Fame criticism is likely just a power grab by members of the media, conscious or not. Media that covers MMA do not have a say in who gets into the only real hall of fame that exists for the sport, as media covering other sports like baseball do.
This rubs some members of the media the wrong way, I’m sure. We are a self-important and insufferable bunch.
Few things are more dangerous than asking someone to write down their opinions or analysis and then paying them for doing so. It’s hard to maintain a healthy sense of one’s own importance when you get paid for saying whatever comes to your head.
The media’s outrage at Bonnar’s inclusion into the UFC Hall of Fame is a lonely one. The fans filling the expo in Las Vegas this past Saturday to see Bonnar and Griffin get inducted did not seem outraged.
There were no fan protests of Bonnar reported. Instead, the fans cheered Bonnar’s heart-felt words and his induction into the hall.
Bonnar once told fans in a post-fight interview, “I have spilled pints and pints of blood for you guys and it has truly been my pleasure.”
The multitude who cheered him then, and who cheered him Saturday during his induction ceremony understood the significance of that sentiment. The fans know an important, exciting and good fighter when they see one, at least over the course of an entire career. And they know that Bonnar is one of them.
So, members of the fight media get no say in who gets into the UFC Hall of Fame. Good.
Maybe Dana White shouldn’t be the only guy deciding who is in MMA’s only hall of fame, but the media certainly wouldn’t be a better replacement. While we’re at it, let’s take it out of the hands of other sports media as well.
Media members are just as susceptible to voting based on capriciousness or personal relationships as critics worry Dana White is. Media in other sports have also never proven themselves to be the consistent, independent vanguard of historical judgment that they’d like you to believe they are.
If they were, Pete Rose would be in the baseball hall of fame even though the MLB brass doesn’t like him.
Griffin gave a great, short acceptance speech Saturday. Bonnar, perhaps more emotional, grateful and with a sense of having something to prove and defend, went on for much longer.
“My whole life, I had never been the best athlete. I was always average in everything. I had two older brothers who beat my ass a lot and they were better than me at everything. So, a big part of me was wanting to become a big, bad ninja so I could kick their ass. That motivated me a lot. That was the beauty of MMA. You didn’t have to be great at everything. You could be pretty good at everything and be a good MMA fighter. So, if I had decent wrestling and decent Jiu Jitsu and decent boxing, and a lot of heart, then hey, I could pull this MMA thing off,” Bonnar said.
Stephan went on, explaining what the honor meant to him at this point in his life. “This last year has been really tough for me. It’s been, retirement. It’s been putting the sport behind me, it’s been trying to unveil the new chapter of my life,” he said.
“And, as I sat down and peeled all these versions of myself away…every version of Stephan Bonnar was UFC. I just want to thank these guys for letting me be a part of this organization. Because, really, ever since I saw the UFC for the first time, I fell in love with it.
“I’m nothing more than a fan like you guys. I love this sport more than anything.”
Stephan Bonnar didn’t need to tell fans that he loves MMA more than anything — we’ve always been able to tell. Bonnar is the fan who made good.
Every sport’s hall of fame should be so lucky as to have a Stephan Bonnar in it. Someone who ate, slept, lived and breathed his sport. Someone who succeeded despite not being the most talented guy in the room. Someone who didn’t flinch when it was his turn to put the fortune and fate of the entire sport on his shoulders.
Stephan Bonnar has never claimed to be something he wasn’t and has never approached MMA with anything but earnestness and effort. Like Griffin, he is honest about his shortcomings and feels that if there’s anything special about him at all, it is simply that he is willing to get back up after getting knocked down.
To close his induction speech, Bonnar quoted former President Calvin Coolidge.
“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not. Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not. Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not. The world is full with educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan, ‘press on,’ has solved and always solved the problems of the human race.”
Bonnar showed fans everywhere what they themselves might be able to accomplish if only they worked hard enough.
Halls of fame should be for accomplishments in and contributions to a sport. Maybe Bonnar’s critics have trouble accepting that someone so normal could have been such an important and legendary figure in his sport. Maybe that’s why they have a problem with his induction into the Hall of Fame.
This fan, however, believes that Bonnar’s normalcy, juxtaposed with his accomplishments and contributions to the sport, is precisely why the fighter deserves to be a hall of famer.
Even if he never wore a belt, Stephan Bonnar is an everyman champion in an everyman sport.
Stephan Bonnar & Forrest Griffin’s UFC Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony:
(Video via MMA H.E.A.T.)