The Latest Episodes of INSIGHT with Chris Van Vliet
Dec. 21, 2021

UFC Hall of Famer Stephan Bonnar on His Legendary MMA Career and Becoming A Pro Wrestler at 39 Years Old

UFC Hall of Famer Stephan Bonnar on His Legendary MMA Career and Becoming A Pro Wrestler at 39 Years Old

Stephan Bonnar (@StephanBonnar) is a UFC Hall of Famer and pro wrestler. He joins Chris Van Vliet at the Blue Wire Studios at the Wynn Las Vegas to talk about his legendary MMA career, his Ultimate Fighter finale match with Forrest Griffin, and how it changed the course of UFC history, he explains his actions in a recent viral Instagram video that he posted, why he got into pro wrestling at age 39, his favorite matches and more!


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How are you feeling? I saw you limping as you were coming in today?

“Yeah I’m just getting off of my deathbed, again. I keep having these near death experiences man, it’s f*cking killing me. But I got severely injured, I had a broken vertebrae in the lumbar spine and a blown out knee, so I was hospitalised for a while. Then a staph infection built around the broken vertebrae, and it got really bad. They wanted to keep me in there for 10 weeks, but I was able to negotiate a 5 week stay with 5 weeks on the picc line where they leave the IV in your arm and administer it 3 times a day. It was probably the most traumatic set of injuries that I have ever had. The staph was so painful that I couldn’t move without help.”

Did you actually feel like you were close to dying in that hospital?

“Yeah, I went pretty delirious in there. I kept having visions in there and I was really out of it and really loopy. I was really scared and the doctors told me that the staph was really bad and we often see it leak to the valves of the heart, that shut me up pretty quick.”

And this all came from a pro-wrestling injury?

“It’s weird. I finished the match and I felt alright. I went back to the hotel, took a shower and crashed out. Then I woke up in the middle of the night and I felt it, it was like a delayed reaction in my spine. I tried to tough it out and see the orthopaedic doctor that I go to to get x-rays so we could see what’s going on. I had a cast on my wrist, and you can’t put a cast on the spine, so you try and tough it out. Little did I know that I had the staph infection brewing in there around the fracture, that’s what got worse. Then a week later I am in more pain than ever from the accident, this doesn’t make sense, I need treatment. I didn’t know what, but I knew that something was wrong. Then sure enough, they think at the hospital that I am trying to fake it just to get medicine.”

The thing about painkillers is that they can be a slippery slope. You take one then you take two… You’re probably still in a lot of pain right now?

“Yeah but the District Attorneys were involved and they give you a script. There is no way you can get anymore than what they are prescribing you. I’ve had a ton of surgeries and a ton of injuries, I think Dana said I had the most injuries of anyone in the UFC. When you get my medical records, it’s like a bible.”   

You started a pro-wrestling career in your 30’s. I mean no one really does that apart from Diamond Dallas Page.

“Yeah I was almost 40 when I started. I would have been fine if I stuck to my big guy moves. But I am learning, I’m feeling good and I just had a great match with Nick Aldis in Minnesota. It was a 20 minute match and I was really happy with it. But I was insistent on flying off of the top rope, and when you are 44, you’ve got to be a bit smarter than that. But it felt good, I did it 100 times. Then I had this one landing and I don’t know what happened. I landed like I normally do, but my bo0nes couldn’t handle it. Maybe the ring was a bit harder I don’t know, but my vertebrae just gave out.”      

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What made you want to start wrestling in your late 30’s?

“I always knew growing up in the 80’s as a little kid. We didn’t have the UFC back then, we had Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior. I always saw myself doing it. Me and my brothers would pretend wrestle, take some mattresses into the yard and pretend that we were pro-wrestlers. Going through classes as a kid the teacher would ask ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ And I said ‘I want to be a pro-wrestler.’ I always envisioned myself doing it, and then of course in the 90’s the UFC came out and I fell in love with it from UFC 1. I had been wrestling since I was 10 and joined the taekwondo school when I was 12. For that era, I was pretty well rounded with striking. Unfortunately there was no boxing in Northwest Indiana, so it wasn’t until I moved to Chicago that I started going to boxing gyms and learning the art of boxing. You go through these phases of loving each martial art and learning the sweet science of each one.”

When you started to get into UFC were there any opportunities for pro-wrestling back then?

“No not really, I never really explored it. No one really reached out to me back in 2005, I was just getting my UFC career started and pro-wrestling was the furthest thing from my mind. I had to get sick of MMA first, and life is about getting those childhood fantasies come to life.”

I want to take you back to The Ultimate Fighter. What was the auditioning and the casting like for The Ultimate Fighter?

“It was something I heard about last minute in terms of sending my tape in The week before I was trying out for The Contender, that boxing show hosted by Sylvester Stallone. I was in there with this guy jacked up on steroids, but he didn’t know how to box, so I beat the sh*t out of him! I was excited and thought I would probably make the show. Then at my jujitsu school and the guys ask me if I am going to try out for The Ultimate Fighter. I told them I just did and they’re like ‘No that was The Contender, it’s a boxing show. The UFC is doing one.’ So I go home that night and go on the website, this was before phones could look things up. They wanted one of your fights on tape and a little interview type thing, like a 2 minute bio of yourself. I put it together on Tuesday, it was due by Friday, and that’s how I got the original call. That was my first time in Vegas. They took you for medicals, background checks and interviews, then they narrowed it from 40 to 15.”   

So many things from that show made the UFC blow up from there, and you get a contract.

“It's like when Dana White said ‘The heavens and the stars aligned perfectly. It was exactly what we needed. “ The UFC was hanging by a thread. After that, the show got signed for 3 more seasons and it cemented UFC. I was really confident that the fight with Forrest Green was going to be a barn burner, and it was.”

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Do you think we are now starting to encroach on that with boxing? There were a lot of people who didn’t care about boxing until about a year ago, and then Jake and Logan Paul made it interesting.

“That’s actually a really good point. What they are doing for boxing, bringing in the eyeballs and turn people into boxing fans, not just Jake Paul fans. When you get that big, a lot of people are going to hate you and judge you though.” 

With the way that it’s structured, do you think it would be harder for you to break into the UFC now?

“Yeah definitely. The guys have evolved in the way the UFC has. I think it would be harder overall.”

What was the goal when you went into pro-wrestling? Was it to win a championship or just to have some fun?

“It was just to have a new weekend hobby. I needed to get that adrenaline high, break a sweat and just to entertain. It was me being able to travel, not be too serious, make a little money, I made a bit of money on merch too. So that was always fun for me, it was a chance to scratch the adrenaline itch and go to the gym and lift some weights.” 

Who did you train with?

“I trained at FSW with D'Lo-Brown. I learned to run the ropes there and it was the main school to learn the basics, take the bumps. But you really learn pro-wrestling by going out there and experiencing it, reading the crowd, and putting together a good match. At first it was easy doing 5 minute matches, but I had a big problem remembering the longer matches.”

What have you got going on right now?

“I’m going into stand-up comedy. I need a new weekend hobby to heal up the injuries from wrestling. I’ve done it enough times to know that something is there. Last time I did a set it was a tough crowd, but I went up there and had a great set. At the time I had a bunch of wrestling gigs going on, so I didn’t go after it, my weekends were scheduled up. Early September I went into the hospital and it gave me a lot of time to think, so why not go into comedy? There is not a better city to learn the art of comedy than in Las Vegas. I’ve been studying it more and writing down material, but the hardest thing is getting it all started. I’m putting it out there that I will do this, so now I have to be accountable.”

What are you are grateful for right now?

“Just to be in a country where you are free. I’m seeing this tyranny going around the world, I’m so thankful I’m in a country where you can be yourself and speak your mind. I’m also thankful for my car and my family.”

Embedded image credits: Instagram