Placing Griffin-Bonnar impact in perspective

July, 6, 2013
7/06/13
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Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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Forrest Griffin, Stephan BonnarJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesShould Stephan Bonnar's seminal 2005 war with Forrest Griffin receive sole credit for saving the UFC?
Stephan Bonnar shouldn't be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame.

I've said my piece about his inclusion on Saturday into the so-called Hall, and would prefer not to waste words on that again. (Abridged: Fighters with 8-7 records in the Octagon who happen to get caught twice using steroids make a mockery of the whole thing.)

Instead, let's examine the moment UFC president Dana White cites as justification for Bonnar's placement: his seminal war with Forrest Griffin at the first Ultimate Fighter finale, because if something is worth commemorating, it should be that.

"Nobody knows more than me how much that fight meant," White said at a media gathering Monday. "For us, that fight meant everything, and I never forget it."

White's not necessarily wrong. I covered the bout cage-side in 2005.

It was clear as it unfolded that the scene at the practice gym for UNLV men's basketball team was worth remembering. It felt like a coming of age for a sport and a company that was used to being maligned in all sorts of circles. Mainstream media wouldn't cover UFC at the time. Corporations weren't willing to align their established brands with what Zuffa wanted to do. While Pride dominated and Japan hosted most of the sport's biggest fights, uncertainty about the future of American MMA hung in the air.

This was the lead for my fight-night report on Sherdog.com: "What Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar did tonight -- when two men stand toe-to-toe, throwing punches and kicks and knees, trying to decapitate the other; when what happens in the ring trumps anything outside it; when two men lift a crowd to its feet in anticipation of something great … and then have that faith fulfilled -- this is the way it's supposed to be."

A few paragraphs later: "For the novices, the MMA neophytes who were introduced to the sport through Spike TV's 'The Ultimate Fighter,' they should now understand what these brave men are about. Even if they never watch another fight again, they'll think of this one at some point in their lives and a chill of the spine or a smile will result."

So it was perfectly reasonable for the mood among UFC brass after TUF 1's crescendo to be a potent mix of jubilation and relief. The reality show offered a reset, and Griffin-Bonnar cemented the idea that, taken at a fever pitch, UFC-branded MMA could and would motivate people to sit in front of their televisions. Thusly, it expedited a renewed TV deal between Zuffa and Spike (though you have to believe it would have happened regardless, considering the show's strong ratings). And soon enough it became the defining reference point for UFC's dramatic turnaround.

Presumably, people who watched Griffin and Bonnar slug it out enjoyed what they saw enough to at least give it another shot. Many, many more came aboard in subsequent years. There have been countless action-packed fights that captured a moment in the Octagon. But to hear White talk about it, there wouldn't have been a chance were it not for Griffin-Bonnar I. This seems a step too far. That's why White's argument in favor of Bonnar earning the promotion's highest honor doesn't work.

Let's start with the notion that Griffin-Bonnar I saved the sport. It didn't. Had it been a mediocre contest like the TUF 1 finale between Diego Sanchez and Kenny Florian, do you buy the Zuffa empire crumbling before it began? Because I don't.

Remember, the following week Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture brought home TUF 1's true finale when they met in Las Vegas on pay-per-view.

[+] EnlargeForrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesWhile Dana White rests the fate of his beloved company on the shoulders of two men he inducts Saturday, he should really take more credit.
Liddell's win prompted a series of major fights and blockbuster nights for the UFC.

The rematch between Liddell and Quinton Jackson garnered the kind of media coverage White prophesied, including for the first time on a large scale from ESPN. Jackson's stunning knockout allowed him to face Dan Henderson in a UFC-Pride title unification contest that scored over 5,000,000 viewers.

You're telling me it never happens if Griffin and Bonnar aren't bloody messes at the end of their 15 minutes together?

This is what White's selling. As the influential UFC president rests the fate of his beloved company on the shoulders of two men he inducts Saturday, he really should take more credit himself. Without that fight, White said this week, "I'd be over picking up cigarette butts from the parking lot at Palace Station and I'd be sleeping on the underpass at I-15." A great line, if you believe him.

There have been fights that, in the moment they happened, felt equally significant. For instance, well before Spike came along, UFC 40's main event between Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock illustrated that with the right formula, White and the Fertittas could promote a product that works on pay-per-view, which to this day remains the promotion's bread-and-butter monetary vehicle.

White can try to convince the world that Zuffa's success is a direct result of Griffin-Bonnar I. This is nostalgic and nice, but it flies in the face of reality.

The rise of the UFC didn't stem from Spike TV agreeing to take Lorenzo Fertitta's money to air a reality show. It didn't come from American fans having the chance to watch MMA in a way they never could before.

It didn't come from two hard-nosed, hungry fighters who went blow for blow in an essential moment. It stems from a confluence of events, all worth remembering in one fashion or another.

Griffin and Bonnar opened eyes during a grand moment, true. Had they not, though, others would have.

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