Mixed martial arts as a whole was suffering, stigmatized by its
no-holds-barred past and labeled as “human
cockfighting” by Senator John McCain, and the biggest
organization in North America, the Ultimate Fighting Championship
was barely staying afloat.
In a last ditch effort to change the company’s fortunes,
the UFC entered into the booming reality TV market with The
Ultimate Fighter, a show built around 16 fighters – 8 light
heavyweights and 8 middleweights – battling to win a
lucrative six-figure contract with the company while showing
viewers the dedication, hard work, and skill that goes in to be a
mixed martial artist.
After a season filled with drunken arguments and captivating
television, it was time for The Ultimate Fighter Finale – the first
UFC event to be broadcast live on Spike TV. On April 9, 2005, the
Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas played host to the nine-fight event.
In the first bout of the televised main card, Diego Sanchez
earned a first-round stoppage victory over Kenny Florian to become
the first Ultimate Fighter winner, but it was the fight that
followed that changed the course of the company.
Forrest Griffin, an easy-to-like Georgia native, and Stephan
Bonnar, a long-time martial artist from Indiana, were set to meet
in the finals of the light heavyweight competition. What followed
was one of the most iconic bouts in UFC history.
“For some reason, I knew that we were going to have a
barnburner of a fight,” says Bonnar in the brief video
retrospective on his historic first encounter with Griffin above.
“I was going to make sure that we had a barnburner because
that was my best chance at winning.”
“It was the gateway to fighting for a living and not
working,” says Griffin, now retired following a 7-year UFC
career that produced a light heavyweight title reign and a 10-5
record inside the Octagon. “Once we got in there, there was a
lot of energy, and it did feel really important. I remember before
(the fight), me and my coach – between the two of us –
drank a whole bottle of Pepto Bismol because we kept getting more
and more nervous about it.”
The fight began and right away you knew you were watching
“Even if you weren’t a fan of the sport and you
happened to be flipping through the channels, you just had to stop
and watch,” says Sports Illustrated’s Jeff Wagenheim,
echoing sentiments shared by fellow journalists John Morgan and
Ariel Helwani, and everyone else that watched the fight.
As the back-and-forth continued, people started calling their
friends, telling them to tune in.
“And the number just starts to grow and grow and
grow,” UFC President Dana White says of the ratings for the
broadcast. “We knew we made it.”
But who had won the six-figure contract and a spot on the UFC
roster? Over the course of three five-minute rounds, Griffin and
Bonnar hit each other with everything they could muster, neither
man giving an inch.
Griffin earned the unanimous decision victory, but the decision
was made right there in the cage to award Bonnar a contract as
The Ultimate Fighter was picked up for another
season immediately following the event, and the rest, as they say,
Check out the clip from the captivating Fighting for a
Generation documentary above and re-live the night the UFC started
to make their way into the mainstream with thoughts and memories
from the fighters, Dana White, the Fertittas, and many others.