UFC boss Dana White recalled the story of how two fighters saved the future of his fighting promotion – and they are not superstar names like Conor McGregor, Nate Diaz or Jon Jones, but Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar.
Nevada casino owners and brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta purchased UFC for $2 million – approximately £1.6m – as the brothers thought it could be popular, but it was far from the juggernaut it would go on to become. In fact, the siblings had invested over £32.5m and the company was still in trouble.
White was trying to help get UFC off the ground, but television networks were refusing to air his product due to the violent nature of the sport. He attended a meeting along with Lorenzo, the CEO of UFC back in 2004, where they met with new network Spike – and a deal was struck.
They decided to go for a reality show in which 16 fighters would live in a house together for a number of weeks, battling for a contract with the promotion. The Ultimate Fighter was released in 2005, with the final airing on April 9.
The idea behind it was to be an insight into the sport different to the standard one-on-one bloody contest inside an octagon. Craig Pilligan, producer of the show, admitted he wanted The Ultimate Fighter to help legitimize the sport and make it feel more general.
“This was going to be our Trojan horse,” White told ESPN. “You’re watching the fights, but they are taped so the network doesn’t have to be terrified of them.
“We can take a peek inside and let fans see how cool this sport is, how exciting the fights are, how interesting the fighters are.”
Spike, a tenderfoot network known for cartoons, also had rights to WWE’s Monday Night Raw, and they opted to schedule The Ultimate Fighter to air immediately after the wrestling program. This allowed the UFC’s show to have a favorable demographic and audience ready to lap it up.
All they needed was the right people competing to become a professional fighter. They brought in Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture as coaches, with the duo fighting at the end of the season – but the rest of the cast were unknowns, including Bonnar.
“My girlfriend at the time loved reality TV, always DVRing shows and would always be watching them,” Bonnar recalled. “She said I was so lucky to be on the first season of something because everyone remembers the first season.”
Griffin agreed, although his path was particularly brutal. Prior to the show, he was competing and told to avoid defeat to book his ticket to the UFC – but a tough injury derailed his plans.
“I had a fight coming up that November. I broke my arm in that fight; I quit,” Griffin revealed. “I became a cop, and now it’s almost a year later.
“I was a replacement, I think, because somebody failed a drug test; so they brought me out and did all the medicals and physicals, and within 17 days of hearing about it, I was in Vegas on the show.”
Ultimately, the show was under pressure to be a success. White understood they needed to have a ‘killer’ night of fights for the finale, which was a live event.
As Griffin and Bonnar battled for a future in the UFC at the finals, referee Herb Dean paused the bout with 3:39 left in the second round to have a cut on Griffin’s face attended to as his face was covered in blood. He was cleared, and the fight resumed.
“I was going crazy,” White remembered. “At the end of every round, I was standing up cheering and clapping.
“I saw that thing unfold right before my eyes, like, ‘Oh, my God, this is so good. This is exactly what we needed.”
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Griffin went on to win the fight 29-28 on all three scorecards, earning himself a UFC contract. However, White and the Fertittas brothers huddled together to make a spur of the moment decision – they were going to offer both competitors a contract as a reward for their unbelievable effort.
White added: “If I hired the best writers in Hollywood and they wrote that thing out, it couldn’t have played out any better than it did the entire season, including the finale.”
Griffin retired with a 19-7 record, claiming the UFC Light Heavyweight title and securing an induction into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2013. Bonnar finished his career with a 15-9 record.
The Ultimate Fighter continues to run to this day, and the show is currently in its 30th season.