MIXED MARTIAL ARTS: Ultimate Fighting Championship legend Stephan Bonnar dies at 45

MIXED MARTIAL ARTS: Ultimate Fighting Championship legend Stephan Bonnar dies at 45

In the early hours of Christmas Day, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) announced the news of Stephan Bonnar’s death at the age of 45. The promotion cited heart complications as the cause of death, which occurred on Thursday, 22 December. 

Bonnar was a pioneer in the UFC, making history as a finalist on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) in 2005. The reality TV show has long been credited for not only saving the then struggling promotion, but also taking it to new heights once thought to be unimaginable. 

The finals bout between Bonnar and Forrest Griffin has etched its name in mixed martial arts (MMA) folklore, and in 2013 was inducted into the UFC’s Hall of Fame Fight Wing.

The Ultimate Fighter 1

The debut season of TUF saw 16 athletes, eight light heavyweights (93kg) and eight middleweights (84kg) live together and compete to be crowned “The Ultimate Fighter”. 

The athletes were divided into two teams coached by UFC legends Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, respectively. Bonnar was a light heavyweight on Team Couture, while his eventual co-finalist Griffin was on Team Liddell. 

In the finals, Bonnar and Griffin produced a three-round, stand-up war. The two went back and forth, with neither giving an inch to their opponent. The fight has been hailed as one of the best in modern mixed martial arts history. 

At a time when mixed martial arts was largely seen as senseless violence, this fight simultaneously delivered just that, yet somehow contradicted that rhetoric. On paper, the fight was nothing more than an absolute slugfest. But the spectacle also told the story of two men who wanted to win by any means and would not fold despite the adversity. 

The 15-minute affair earned a roaring ovation from the live crowd, and plaudits from viewers all over the world. 

Mixed martial arts legend Stephan Bonnar arrives at the Fighters Only World Mixed Martial Arts Awards 2011 at the Palms Casino Resort on 30 November 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

Although Bonnar lost the fight via unanimous decision, “The American Psycho” earned the respect of the MMA world, including UFC president Dana White. Bonnar was offered a UFC contract after the fight despite the losing effort. 

As for Bonnar’s opponent, Griffin eventually went on to become the UFC light heavyweight champion. Griffin is now the vice-president of athlete development at the UFC Performance Institute.

A credible career

Although Bonnar did not quite reach the same heights as Griffin in the octagon, he had an illustrious career in his own right. He competed 26 times as a professional, with 15 appearances for UFC and one for Bellator. 

Throughout his career, Bonnar competed against iconic fighters such as Jon Jones, Rashad Evans, Lyoto Machida, Anderson Silva and Tito Ortiz. 

The makeshift main event bout against Silva at UFC 153 on 13 October 2012 was Bonnar’s final fight in the promotion. After losing via technical knockout, Bonnar announced he was stepping away. 

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However, his retirement lasted little more than two years. In November 2014, he competed against Ortiz at Bellator 131. Again, Bonnar lost – this time via split decision after three rounds. 

Bonnar went on to try his hand at professional wrestling. In November 2017, he made his debut for Impact Wrestling. He teamed up with Quinn “Moose” Ojinnaka to face Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal and Bobby Lashley. The match was heavily built around the legitimate MMA credentials of Bonnar, Lawal and Lashley. 

Bonnar made another appearance for Impact Wrestling in 2019, this time squaring up against Moose. He also made several appearances at independent wrestling promotions between 2017 and 2021. 

In 2020, he briefly stepped back into the MMA scene – this time as a cornerman for fellow TUF 1 contestant Diego Sanchez.  


Bonnar was a well-respected figure in the world of MMA. He was heralded for his toughness and resilience. What he arguably lacked in technical ability, he more than made up for in determination and grit. 

“Stephan Bonnar was one of the most important fighters to ever compete in the octagon,” said White in a statement. “His fight with Forrest Griffin changed the sport forever, and he will never be forgotten. The fans loved him, related to him, and he always gave them his best. He will be missed.”

His significance to the sport cannot be overstated. Many members of the combat sports community have paid their respects to Bonnar following his passing. 

“Horrible news. Not hyperbole to state that without Stephan Bonnar’s contributions on TUF 1 (and the finale) the sport [wouldn’t be] what it is today. He will forever be an extremely important part of MMA history,” said Ariel Helwani, combat sports journalist and personality. DM


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