It was with heavy hearts that we reported the news yesterday that legendary The Ultimate Fighter finalist, Stephan Bonnar, had passed away at the early age of 45 years old. While no cause of death has been shared yet, sources close to Bonnar confirmed the news and then Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) officially announced his passing around noon ET on Christmas eve.
“The UFC family is saddened by the passing of UFC Hall of Famer Stephan Bonnar,” the promotion’s official account read. “We send our sincerest condolences to his family and friends.”
Bonnar’s professional mixed martial arts (MMA) career lasted 13 years and 24 fights, and he was a familiar figure in and around the sport. The news of his passing hit many people hard, and other fighters and MMA personalities shared their sorrow at his death on social media.
End of TUF1 there was a cast party. I’m hobbling around on crutches at the casino and I get a call.— Nathan Quarry (@NateRockQuarry) December 25, 2022
“Hey. We need to go. Some bouncer put his hands on Stephan and Stephan kicked him in the head and KO’ed him.”
He lived hard and fast.
Nothing but love, brother. https://t.co/J28htUPPYH
Stephan Bonnar, you were one of the toughest & funniest guys I’ve ever met. You passed way too soon but accomplished so much in a short amount of time. You helped change this sport forever, inspired a whole generation of fighters & your impact will always be remembered. pic.twitter.com/LyYA5FzRmG— Kenny Florian (@kennyflorian) December 25, 2022
Stephan Bonner a key piece to the growth of our sport. I remember watching him and Forest battling it out and thinking, I gotta try this out. RIP to a true pioneer!— Frankie Edgar (@FrankieEdgar) December 25, 2022
Absolutely devastated by the news of Stephan Bonnar passing. One of the most genuine and solid human beings I’ve ever met. My heart goes out to his family. Rest easy my friend. I’m so thankful our paths crossed and for the time we did have together. pic.twitter.com/HeQqVkbrM2— Gray Maynard (@GrayMaynard) December 25, 2022
Bonnar/Griffin changed the UFC forever! If you knew @StephanBonnar it was impossible not to love him, a loyal friend with a great sense of humor who once took over an entire floor of our hotel in Australia preparing his own kangaroo meal! RIP American Psycho, gone way too young! pic.twitter.com/KMPEADC1ZX— Mike Goldberg (@GoldieOnTV) December 25, 2022
Diego Sanchez just now on the death of his friend Stephan Bonnar: pic.twitter.com/OxZ7oYQu4V— Nolan King (@mma_kings) December 25, 2022
My condolences go out to Stephan Bonnar’s family. His fight with Forrest Griffin changed the landscape of the sport of MMA and pushed it to the next level. He’s a big part of the reason we are here today. https://t.co/NtGaVAN96M— Michael Chiesa (@MikeMav22) December 24, 2022
Stephan Bonnar vs Forrest Griffin was the first mma fight I ever watched, and it completely changed my life.— Megan Anderson (@MeganAnderson) December 24, 2022
It is so incredibly heartbreaking to hear the news of Stephan's passing. Another one gone too soon. My thoughts are with his family during this time pic.twitter.com/1wa2oz1s6H
As all MMA fans know, Stephan was a pioneer in the sport. But he was also SO kind and fun to work with. Whenever we would see him, even after his fight career, he still lit up the room. Prayers for him & his loved ones at this difficult time. https://t.co/dMSUuBczdt— Megan Olivi (@MeganOlivi) December 24, 2022
RIP to a great friend and Fighter. Stephan Bonnar—You had the heart of a thousand men. Really gonna miss you. pic.twitter.com/embkLIrOsG— MMA Roasted (@MMARoasted) December 24, 2022
This was Stephan Bonnar at UFC 116 after defeating Krzysztof Soszynski.— MMA History Today (@MMAHistoryToday) December 25, 2022
It was the most emotional post-fight speech of his career and it exemplified why he was beloved. pic.twitter.com/w4aCdqFukm
Bonnar was an extremely important piece in the success story that UFC has become. After being bought by Zuffa in 2001, the combat sports league struggled to become financially viable, posting more than $30 million in losses over the years. UFC President, Dana White, was telling his bosses (Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta) they should sell the organization, but they decided to hold on and try a reality show called The Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV first.
The first season of The Ultimate Fighter was a modest hit for Spike, but it was the Finale featuring the first UFC fights on broadcast television that lit the fire that propelled the sport forward into a multi-billion dollar juggernaut it has become today. Bonnar and Forrest Griffin engaged in a knock-down, drag-out brawl for the Light Heavyweight tournament finals. Nothing like it had ever been seen on basic cable, and as each round ended the viewership numbers kept skyrocketing.
While Griffin was awarded the decision win with 29-28x3 scores, UFC spontaneously decided to award both fighters with UFC contracts. The fight kicked off a period of interest and growth in UFC that saved the sport of MMA in North America from near-death.
Who knows what would have happened without Bonnar vs. Griffin?
For this reason alone, Bonnar is one of the most important figures in MMA history. Meanwhile, Alex Behunin covers a few more reasons in his article on Bonnar’s passing. Rest in peace, Stephan.