MMA and the UFC debuted more than a decade prior, but to legions of fans, the sport began on the night of The Ultimate Fighter Finale in 2005.
The narrative of April 9, 2005, has been written and revised several times. For example, Griffin vs Bonnar is the only fight talked about, but Rich Franklin earned a title shot that night. Griffin is frequently called “the original Ultimate Fighter,” but Diego Sanchez earned the honor roughly a half-hour prior. In the end, The Ultimate Fighter Finale is defined most by the fact that many fans were introduced to the sport for the very first time that night.
It’s common knowledge now: The UFC was in debt and Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta were strongly considering closing doors on the business when they shopped the idea of The Ultimate Fighter to Spike TV. No network was interested, and the Fertitta brothers had to foot the bill on the entire production for Spike to agree to broadcast it.
The premise was simple: 16 of the top undiscovered fighters in America would be live in a house and compete in a tournament where the winner would get a contract to fight in the UFC. Their coaches: Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell and Randy “The Natural” Couture, two future Hall-of-Famers who were in the prime of their careers.
The show was a success, at least as far as a reality show could be on Spike TV at the time. But the finale was the night that needed to deliver if the boat was to avoid sinking. The first bout on television would feature two names familiar to fans now. Team Liddell’s Diego Sanchez faced Team Couture’s Kenny Florian in the middleweight final. If you only watched that fight and changed the channel, you would be forgiven. Sanchez dominated Florian on the mat to finish the fight in a lackluster three minutes. “The Nightmare” gets credit for winning the first season of TUF, but fans forget that he actually held the title exclusively for roughly half an hour before the following bout.
MMA wasn’t on cable television often yet in 2005, so the fact that Griffin and Bonnar had their battle on this night could well be considered fate if you’re discussing the history of mixed martial arts. Would the sport still have made it without their epic collision being available on Spike? We may never know.
Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar went toe-to-toe for fifteen minutes of non-stop action. Both men stood their ground and exchanged combinations, never letting up on their breath-taking pace. Both men had their moments, finishing the fight bruised and bloodied. The UFC had been in far bigger venues than the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas for the event. However, find a replay and you’ll be pressed to find a more electric crowd ever in mixed martial arts than the one that was on hand that night.
There could only be one winner, and Griffin ended up hoisting the trophy when the night was over. But in a moment that continues to live on, UFC President Dana White declared “there are no losers” and awarded Stephan Bonnar with his own six-figure contract for his valiant effort that night.
For many people, that was the end of the evening. If you were one of the people who did not see it live, you may even be under the assumption that they were the marquee attraction that night. However, Rich Franklin still had business with Ken Shamrock minutes after the final Ultimate Fighter trophy awarded.
“Ace” had not yet become one of the greatest ambassadors of the sport in the late 2000’s. The UFC would soon be telling his story at every turn of going from math teacher to cage fighter as an example of how un-barbaric the sport and athletes are. But that night, Franklin was still new to the UFC stage as he needed just under three minutes to stop Shamrock in his fourth UFC bout. He would go on to defeat Evan Tanner for the middleweight title, a distinction he held for more than a year before running into another legend in Anderson Silva.
History remembers The Ultimate Fighter finale in unique ways. As Dana White put it, it was the night where fans came across it on television and immediately called their friends to tune in. It’s credited with saving the UFC, even though a second season had already been greenlit by Spike before the finale began. But one thing is certain, it provided a legendary battle at a time when the sport needed a jolt. Forrest Griffin would go on to coach TUF himself and even win the world championship, but he admits his greatest accomplishment is still winning the war with Stephan Bonnar that night. On a night where the UFC most needed a classic, it got one. That alone makes it a night that continues to live on.