Remember When? Griffin vs. Bonnar changes UFC, MMA forever

With nearly every sports organization on the planet on pause at the moment as the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, we feel it’s an opportune time to reminisce about some special moments in sports history

On this day in 2005, Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar turned in an instant classic at The Ultimate Fighter 1 Finale in a bout that completely altered the trajectory of the UFC as a company and mixed marital arts as a sport.

When Griffin and Bonnar were done pummelling one another after 15 minutes of light-heavyweight action, everyone watching knew it was a special fight. The type of epic scrap usually only seen in a Rocky movie. All heart and haymakers with little technique or concern for personal well-being.

At one point the back-and-forth donnybrook was dubbed as the greatest fight in the promotion’s history and UFC president Dana White has always said he believes it’s the most important fight in the sport’s history because of how it helped grow the fan base.

Today, the UFC is a multi-billion-dollar company – it was sold for more than $4 billion in 2016 – with the ability to secure a private island on which to hold fights during a global pandemic.

At the time of Griffin vs. Bonnar, however, then-owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, who purchased the UFC in 2001 for $2 million, were hemorrhaging money to keep the company running and the future of the UFC was not looking bright from a financial standpoint.

So, the Fertittas and White created The Ultimate Fighter reality show on Spike TV as an eleventh-hour attempt to turn things around and grow their brand.

While the show was a relative hit, a lot was riding on the success of the finale since it was the first live UFC event aired on cable television. Previous events were only available on pay-per-view.

“Entering the finale, I said we have to have a killer night of fights,” White told ESPN. “This thing has to be successful because, yes, all the taped shows had been really, really good and successful, but we needed a successful live event.”

What happened at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas that night changed everything.

Griffin ended up winning a decision to earn a six-figure UFC contract but that’s just a minor detail at this point. White was so impressed that he also gave Bonnar a new contract on the spot.

Griffin rode the momentum of that fight and became one of the UFC’s top stars. He even won the 205-pound title in 2008 when he upset Quinten “Rampage” Jackson. Bonnar had moderate success in the UFC. He was never a title contender like Griffin but he did land big fights with the likes of Jon Jones and Anderson Silva.

Both men were inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2013.

“There has never been a more important fight in the history of the UFC,” White said at the ceremony. “There has never been a more important fight – except for like UFC 1 (when Royce Gracie won the tournament and introduced Brazilian jiu-jitsu to mainstream fight fans) – in the history of mixed martial arts.”

“That bout sharpened the awareness and the focus of what was being done in the MMA universe, much like Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs did for women’s tennis,” Art Davie, the man who created the UFC in 1993, said in a previous conversation with Sportsnet.

In the years following Griffin vs. Bonnar, the UFC separated itself from competing brands like Pride FC and Strikeforce and momentum has been on a steady incline ever since.

It might not have been possible without the brouhaha over that infamous brawl on this day 15 years ago.

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