The Civilized Brute | Feature | Chicago Reader

The Civilized Brute 

What's a nice guy like Stephan Bonnar doing in a sport once decried as human cockfighting?

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Near the end of the first round, Stephan Bonnar landed a furious blow that made a clean, surgical cut across the bridge of Forrest Griffin's nose. Griffin, a rising star in the world of mixed martial arts, had a 9-2 record and a fearsome reputation: in a 2003 bout he knocked out an opponent with his one good arm after having broken the other moments earlier. Now the blood poured out, rendering his face a late Jackson Pollock. It's the kind of cut that ends most MMA bouts, but Griffin just smiled as a doctor wiped the wound clean, then jumped right back into the action.

It had been a brutal fight from the start. The two light-heavyweights are about the same size: Griffin is 6'3", Bonnar 6'4"; each weighs about 205 pounds. By the second round, both were covered with blood. Bonnar's girlfriend, Andrea Brown, watching from the stands, began to cry.

To the uninitiated the fight looked a lot like a normal boxing match, with padded gloves and standing punches (or "standup," in the vernacular) accounting for most of the action. But there were flashes of other fighting techniques: Muay Thai, Brazilian jujitsu, Greco-Roman wrestling. MMA incorporates dozens of fighting techniques, and every competitor has at least a couple of specialties.

MMA has been a fringe sport since its invention in the early 90s in Brazil by the Gracie family, experts at Brazilian jujitsu. In 1993 Rorion Gracie, the first of several Gracies to move to the U.S., organized a no-holds-barred tournament in Denver that was televised on pay-per-view and called the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The first champion was Rorion's brother Royce.

The UFC is now the world's biggest MMA association. Its fights still air on pay-per-view, where they draw hundreds of thousands of viewers. But recently the sport has entered the mainstream media with its own reality series, The Ultimate Fighter, on the cable channel Spike TV. The first 13 episodes ran from January to April. By the end of the season it was attracting two million viewers per week. The show's second season begins Monday, August 22.

Season one featured 16 amateur fighters living and training together in Las Vegas, with a face-off at the end of each episode, after which the loser had to go home. At the end of the season, two middleweights and two heavyweights battled in the Cox Pavilion on the campus of the University of Nevada in Las Vegas; the fights aired live on Spike.

The winner got a three-fight contract with the UFC that could be worth over $100,000, plus a Toyota Scion and a wristwatch, while the loser was left to continue in the regional amateur circuit, akin to the minor leagues.

The bout between Bonnar and Griffin was the show's finale, on April 9. The second and third rounds were as bloody as the first. The fighters could barely stand, but they refused to hit the canvas. Bonnar remembers what he was thinking: "You've been more tired than this, you're not about to throw up. You've worked until you've thrown up, and this ain't that bad."

There are three ways to end a UFC fight: a knockout, a decision from the judges, or a tapout, when one fighter, stuck helplessly in his opponent's grip, taps the ground (or anything he can reach) to indicate surrender. The maximum duration for most fights is 15 minutes--three 5-minute rounds (title fights include a fourth round). At the end of the third round it's up to the judges to decide whose performance was better--who landed the most direct hits, who was more aggressive, and whose hits, kicks, jabs, and takedowns were most effective, among other criteria.

As Bonnar and Griffin pounded away, the announcer told the 2.6 million viewers that this was the greatest UFC bout ever. As the first UFC event to air on regular cable TV, it also turned out to be the most watched fight in the history of the sport.

When the judges voted unanimously in Griffin's favor, Bonnar fell to his knees. "I thought I won. . . . I just didn't know what else to do," he says. Half the fans booed; half cheered. Then, in a final dramatic turn, league executives decided to award Bonnar a three-fight contract as well, though he lost out on the car and the watch.

When Bonnar righted himself for the postfight interview, a wound above his left eye was dripping with blood, sweat matted his short brown hair, and his nose, already crooked from a blow in an earlier match, was starting to swell. But he smiled when the announcers asked for his impression of the fight. "That tough son of a bitch just wouldn't drop," he said.

There are only 95 UFC fighters in the world, and so far the sport hasn't created any celebrities, unless you count Tank Abbott, a nasty fighter who had a guest spot on Friends in 1997. But Andrea Brown, with whom Bonnar's been house-hunting in and around Chicago, says lately people have been stopping Bonnar on the street to congratulate him.

In such a small world, opponents in any fight are likely to know each other; many have even trained together. When the final bell rang on Bonnar and Griffin's match, the fighters embraced. After the judges announced their decision, they embraced. After the awards were presented, they embraced. And at the end of the night they shared an ambulance to the emergency room. "We'd been through an ordeal together," says Griffin, "and that does help you build a little bit of a bond."

When he's not pummeling and being pummeled by his friends, Bonnar leads a fairly normal life. His day job is at the Gold Coast Multiplex at Clark and Oak, where he's a personal trainer. He just finished a year's worth of graduate courses in Muscle Activation Therapy (a holistic form of physical therapy) in Burr Ridge. "I've always been fascinated with the body and how it works," he says.

He spent his childhood in Munster, Indiana, obsessed with kung fu movies. "To me, martial arts and all that hand-to-hand combat, I was just fascinated by it for as long as I can remember," he says. He started wrestling competitively when he was nine and continued through high school. He took up tae kwon do at the age of 12 and earned a black belt when he was 15. At Purdue University he majored in exercise physiology and health promotion. He was going to try out for the school's wrestling team, but there was an incident. "I actually got in a fight with one of the wrestlers," he says, "and that sort of turned me off to the team."

Bonnar had just started dating a girl whose ex-boyfriend's dorm room was right across the hall from his own. One day Bonnar was walking home from class when he saw the girl and her ex, the wrestler, through a window, sitting on the couch in the guy's room. "They were, like, cuddling," Bonnar says. He became enraged: "I ended up kicking his door in and giving him a good old beating. I was arrested and kicked out of the apartments, and that was just the first week of school.

"I was confused and young," he says, "and I really liked the girl. I was hurt. I thought that was the right thing to do--that if you really like someone you should beat the guy up. . . . If it happened now, I'd just say, 'That's your choice, that's fine, make your choices, but I can't be affected by it.'" That was the last time he beat someone up outside the ring.

He got a bachelor's degree in 2000; the next year he moved to Chicago to take the gig at the Multiplex, where he quickly grew frustrated with the solipsism of his workouts. "I asked myself, What the hell am I doing this for?" he says. "I felt like something was missing." Soon he was studying jujitsu with Carlson Gracie, uncle of Rorion and Royce, at the Carlson Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy in the Old Town Fitplex, which is owned by the Multiplex.

One summer day in 2001 a promoter stopped by the Carlson Gracie Academy to announce an MMA tournament called the Iron Heart Crown scheduled for that November in Hammond, Indiana. Bonnar signed up on the spot. "I just entered that fight out of boredom," he says. "I always knew that once you have to face competition, you get more serious about training."

He took up boxing to prepare, training with local coach Joe Kaehn. In his first match, in November, Bonnar forced two opponents to tap out in one night, winning the Iron Heart title.

The next year Bonnar decided to sharpen his boxing skills by signing up in the novice division of the Golden Gloves competition, which is for boxers with fewer than ten career fights. "Once I went in there, I stopped my first opponent in the first round," he says. "The next week, it was a big dude. Like 6'8". I ended up stopping him in the first round. . . . Third week, came back and fought a tough guy. It was probably the hardest I've ever been hit. He hit me with a bomb, I went down. I got back up and ended up beating him." He went on to win the finals, becoming the Senior Novice Chicago Golden Gloves Super Heavyweight Champion. "I sensed I was either pretty good or pretty lucky," he says.

In September 2003 Bonnar went to Brazil for an MMA match against Lyoto Machida, an expert in Muay Thai, a particularly tough form of kickboxing that focuses on elbow jabs and knee kicks. Bonnar was unfamiliar with the style, and Machida was the first southpaw he'd faced. Still, he held his own before Machida caught his eye and opened a cut. The ref stopped the action, giving Machida the win, though Bonnar says he might have had a chance if his cornerman hadn't forgotten the Vaseline to close the wound.

That fight taught Bonnar an important lesson: "You've got to train for your opponents." After that he made a point of learning his competitors' strengths and training in their specialties, even if meant traveling to find a suitable coach ("It's hard to find southpaw Thai boxers with good skills in Chicago").

Bonnar won his next three bouts.

Brown, a producer for Fox News Chicago, met Bonnar five years ago, when she was his personal-training client. "He used to make me sit and watch these tapes [of UFC fights]," she says. "But guys watch football--it doesn't mean they're going to play it!"

Bonnar spends an average of 18 hours a week working out--some days he visits the gym twice. Running, lifting weights, sparring, and grappling are all parts of his routine, designed to strip the contemplation from his fighting. "A lot of MMA is pure reaction, so you need to get your training to that point," he says. "If you take a second to think, you'll get caught. You don't have the time to think."

A few weeks after Bonnar returned from Las Vegas, he was joined for a training session at the Fitplex by a brawny black belt in Brazilian jujitsu named Gustavo Gussiem. They took to the floor in shorts and T-shirts, their limbs intertwined in what looked like an aggressive game of Twister. Gussiem pushed Bonnar down and they locked arms tightly. Then, quickly, Bonnar turned Gussiem over, gaining the top position. Long limbs flew explosively, then it was over, and Gussiem was saying, "No, no, do it this way, make sure you do this." They returned to the starting position and repeated the whole sequence 50 or 60 times, for well over an hour, making tiny changes--though it was hard to see any difference between one try and the next. Later Bonnar said that there were a million things he was doing wrong. "Maybe I wasn't clamping his arm down enough, or maybe I didn't have one hook high enough in the grip of his knee, or maybe I didn't have one foot far off enough," he said. "Maybe I was making it like a one-two-three-step process instead of just doing everything all at once. Whenever you learn a new technique you have to repeat it 100 times or so until you get it right."

Today's UFC looks very different from the scrappy league that formed a decade ago. The old fights were free-for-alls, with prohibitions only against eye gouging, biting, and strangling. There were no weight classes. The slogan of the UFC back then was "Two men enter, one leaves." The violence was often intense, though there has been only one reported MMA-related death, in Kiev in 1998. Still, the sport caught the unwanted attention of Senator John McCain, who was sent a video of a fight in 1996. The senator wrote letters to 50 governors calling ultimate fighting "human cockfighting" and urging them to ban it in their states. Most of them did, and the bouts moved to small local venues, primarily in Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, South Dakota, and Wyoming--none of which had state boxing commissions at the time. David Plotz wrote in a 1999 Slate piece of attending a match "in the parking lot of a small Mississippi casino." In 1997 McCain, then the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the cable TV industry, pressured pay-per-view carriers to drop MMA events, driving the sport even deeper underground, where it grew less regulated and more violent.

Then in 2001, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, executives at Station Casinos in Las Vegas, bought the dying league and attempted a radical turnaround of the sport. Dana White, a former boxer, trainer, and sports agent who's now the UFC president, also bought a share. The new owners instituted rules and governance. A long list of prohibited moves was developed, including head butting and groin kicking. Formal weight classes were instituted.

The Ultimate Fighter brought the UFC to a general audience. Bonnar, with his boyish looks and air of normalcy, was cast as soon as the producers took a look at his tape, which featured highlights from his fights and an interview conducted by Brown. "I had a feeling I had some casting potential," Bonnar says. "I knew they weren't looking for the stereotypical hard, tough guy. . . . I knew that looking at me, they'd say, 'You don't look like a fighter, but you can fight.'"

Next to his castmates--hothead Chris Leben, egomaniac Josh Koscheck, disgruntled Bobby Southworth, unhinged Diego Sanchez--the clean-cut, friendly Bonnar came off like a Boy Scout. "He's such an even-tempered, mild-mannered guy," says Brown. "The first thing anyone says when they meet him, it doesn't matter if it's a guy or it's a girl, they will say, 'That guy is a fighter? He's so nice.'"

In his quest to learn as many fighting styles as possible, Bonnar has bought a minivan for cross-country travel so he can train with various experts. This week he's in Boston, studying Muay Thai. The trip will also satisfy Bonnar's wanderlust, inspired by John Steinbeck's Travels With Charlie, which he read five years ago. "He just turned his truck into a little apartment and traveled the country and met people and saw different cultures and saw everything that America had to offer," says Bonnar. "It's what freedom's all about."

Bonnar's next televised bout will be on August 6, in Las Vegas, broadcast on Spike TV's Ultimate Fight Night Live. His opponent will be one of his Ultimate Fighter castmates, Sam Hoger. "I'm going to give him a beating," Bonnar says. "I've got a strategy. He's got pretty good standup and his jujitsu's good on the ground, but he's not the best with his takedowns and his clench."

The longest MMA careers last till a fighter is in his 40s. Bonnar is 28. He thinks he might have a future in Muscle Activation Therapy and might teach martial arts on the side. Fighting, he says, "is a big part of my life right now, but it's not something I can hang on to and identify myself as . . . because you can't do it forever. Eventually your skills are gonna go and you'll get old, and there just has to be more to you than that."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, Spike TV.

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