Out Of Shadows Into New Light

Salt and pepper. Black and white. Coffee and cream. Day and night. Obviously, some things are just meant to be together. Rarely can you mention one without it overshadowing and smoothly fl owing to the other. And in mixed martial arts, this phenomenon sometimes holds true, too. For seldom can the name “Forrest Griffi n” be uttered to fi ght fans without subconscious synapses followed up with whispers of “Stephan Bonnar.” But can you blame ’em? In what can be regarded as possibly the longest 15-minute stretch in fi ghting history, these two men acted to cooperatively stitch up and repair the sinking ship that was the UFC while simultaneously trying to destroy each other with the same exact passion and energy. But since then—spare the highly touted rematch that sought, and succeeded, to relive such excitement— the duet has seemingly vanished. And whereas Forrest Griffi n has plainly been walking his hard-fought path into the limelight of mainstream MMA, this inevitably begs the question: But where is Stephan Bonnar?

Coming off of a freak knee injury that had him sidelined for months, Stephan Bonnar is actually in closer proximity to his fi gurative MMA soulmate than he’s ever been before, perhaps. “I moved to Vegas, and now we help each other train [at Xtreme Couture],” says Bonnar with regard to Griffi n before continuing on and displaying the engaging wit for which he is famous. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right? Now we live and train in the same city.”

Of course, this assumes that Stephan and Forrest were ever really split from each other to begin with, given their special tie that exists within the minds of reminiscing fans—undoubtedly a truth that Stephan has repeatedly experienced. “When people see me, they naturally say, ‘Hey, that was a great fi ght with Forrest.’ At fi rst, it was little awkward because I’d have another fi ght and then another, but even right after a fi ght I just had, people would say, ‘Hey, I really loved your fi ght,’ and I’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, thanks. You mean with Jardine? Oh, you mean that one.’ So now, no matter what fi ght I’m coming off, if someone comes up all excited saying they just loved my fi ght, I know what they’re talking about. I don’t question it anymore.” Clearly, this is one shadow that a fi ghter might not mind being caught under, as it is only further proof of the appreciation that he helped spawn for a sport that is now beloved by millions. But not every shadow is a good thing.

Wishing only to look forward in his continuing career, Bonnar has repeatedly found his attention being twisted around backward, where he is once again forced to face the mistakes he’s made, namely with regard to his stunning steroid charge that dates more than 2 years in the past now. “It’s one of the most frustrating things I’ve dealt with, something that I just can’t seem to get past,” Bonnar says, rightfully displeased. “I’ve talked about it like a million times since it happened, and I’ve paid my dues and I thought it was fi nally behind me. But then before my next fi ght, all the questions are about that! So I fi ght and I think, ‘Sweet, now it’s really behind me.’ But then, before the next fi ght [the questions are], ‘So now that it’s your second fi ght back [after the suspension] …’ You know, it’s like I can’t get rid of it!” Quickly reverting back to the cheery disposition that sometimes makes him seem more “guy that the ring girl would take home to Mom,” rather than leather-slinging combatant, Bonnar laughs off the situation gracefully.

But as any fi ghter who has experienced a setback can tell you, sometimes fans aren’t as forgiving, whether that setback involves a scandal or even just a few unlucky losses in a sport that holds 1,001 ways to lose. Unfortunately, this is also a shadowy area where “The American Psycho” sometimes fi nds himself wrongfully placed under, especially considering the fact that two of his last three losses have come at the hands of light heavyweight champ of the world Forrest Griffi n. At the same time, ironically enough, Bonnar’s biggest UFC career win came over Keith Jardine—a man who decisively knocked Griffi n silly; followed by a decision loss to Rashad Evans—the man who is next in line to try and do the same. But Stephan wouldn’t tell you as much. “Sometimes the biggest fans are the biggest critics, too. To try and please everyone is to fi ght a losing battle, so I don’t really care if I’m misunderstood or not. You’re gonna be criticized heavily no matter what, no matter who you are.” Stephan pauses, selfl essly shifting gears to offer defense to others who are caught up in the disturbingly growing trend of fi ghters being lambasted in the wake of defeat. “MMA is the most unforgiving sport there is, unlike baseball and whatnot. If you have a bad night in fi ghting, it’s, ‘You’re done, you’re washed up, it’s over, you should hang it up.’ I mean, look what Chuck [Liddell] is going through right now. I really feel for him. We [mixed martial artists] work really hard, but eventually you lose and then you have to deal with all that. So I’m done trying to please people and have people understand me. People can think what they want. I just don’t want to read about it anymore.”

Clearly, these are the words of a man who longs to move forward from any slumps or shadows of the past and up the looming mountain of continuing triumph. And whereas most fi ghters can be expected to give humdrum yearnings for a championship strap of gold and gemstones when it comes to disclosing their goals, Stephan fi rst looks to follow his calling for a simpler, yet equally impressive type of belt. “I really want to earn my black belt in Jiu-Jitsu,” reveals Bonnar, currently a brown belt, of his continuing plans for the sport. “My goals aren’t so much about the outcome of fi ghts or ‘I wanna beat this guy or that guy.’ For me, it’s about getting in the gym and trying to improve a little bit each day. The Japanese call it the Kaizen principle.” Like other fi ghters who once trained in Jiu-Jitsu under Carlson Gracie, Sr (such as WEC bantamweight champ Miguel Torres, for example), Bonnar embraces the spirit of the true martial artist that originated centuries ago in the Far East. Considering the root theme of the Kaizen principle—slow and continuous improvement, with no end—it shouldn’t be long before fans see Bonnar entering the growing stable of the “modern generation” of fi ghters who have earned their black belts in the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu—a trend that, strangely enough, would otherwise be going largely unnoticed had it not been for the famous fi ght that this black-belthopeful won’t ever live down.

Sticking with the theme of the “modern generation” of fi ghters, though, at UFC 94 Bonnar will have his face-to-face meeting (or as Bonnar would probably say, “face-to-fi st” meeting) with Jon Jones, a young fi ghter who wishes to be the next big thing in the UFC. “[Jones] is a tough guy; physically, he’s very impressive. He’s young and strong, and he’s got good strikes, submissions, and wrestling,” Bonnar respectfully says, customarily acknowledging the skills of his opponent like every other fi ghter does. But Stephan isn’t every other fi ghter. “[Jon] is an unorthodox fi ghter,” Bonnar says, before adding a suggestive infl ection to his voice that could come complete with a wink and confi dent smile. “He likes to throw some slick moves—kinda like some of my moves—so it should make for an entertaining fi ght.” Certainly, given the nothing-to-lose situation of Jones, coupled with the veteran status of Bonnar—not to mention his itchiness to return to his Octagonal home—this matchup has all the right tools to be a fan-pleaser, through and through.

And if things turn out right for Bonnar on January 31, perhaps fans could once again fi nd themselves in the position to see the third installment of Griffi n/Bonnar down the road—an epic battle about which all true fi ght fans are admittedly salivating at the thought. Says Bonnar about such a matchup: “First of all, I’ve got to earn my way there. I have to get past Jon Jones, who’s fi rst on my mind. And then I’d have to beat a top fi ve guy. And if Forrest keeps the belt, then maybe I could get that title shot …” On cue, Stephan’s voice becomes more light-hearted as he approaches the punch line of his thought, as he recognizes the diffi culty involved in preparing to fi ght someone with whom he trains. “Believe me, I’d still fi ght him for a title shot, but it’d just be a pain in the ass because I don’t know how we’d share the gym! But we’ll worry about it when it happens.” And that certainly is a worry that most would be happy to see Stephan have.

Unmistakably, it’s easy to see that some shadows, for good reason, were never meant to get out from under. And fortunately for Stephan Bonnar—a mixed martial artist whose continuing journey and unrelenting spirit personifi es the ups and downs of The American Dream—it is precisely all of the unfavorable shadows of controversy, injury, and downright “shit happens” bad luck that now exercise no control over the fi ghter who will be set free and allowed to start anew in 2009. And perhaps most true of all is this: In whatever he does, and regardless of if he admirably remains the salt to the pepper, or the coffee, or the cream, Stephan Bonnar will always have a place at the table that is the UFC and mixed martial arts as a whole, as he continues moving forward in the fi ght he calls life.

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