They could barely stand. Their bodies were bruised and battered and their faces bloodied. The thousands who crammed into Las Vegas’ Cox Pavilion were now on their feet, cheering and marvelling at the epic they had just witnessed.
Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar didn’t know it then, but the 15 punishing minutes they had just put themselves through were the most important in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s history.
The fight game may be littered with hyperbole, but this is no exaggeration. If it wasn’t for Griffin v Bonnar, Dana White – the UFC president – has joked he would probably be sweeping up cigarette ends and sleeping rough.
It was thrilling, it was exciting and not only did it keep the boss off the streets, the fight was precisely the shot in the arm the needed for the UFC – the biggest promoter of mixed martial arts (MMA) – to become the juggernaut it is today.
Prior to this 2005 epic, the UFC was dying and White, together with owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta III were battling to keep it alive.
This fight, according to commentator Joe Rogan, was MMA’s answer to Hearns v Hagler, and was the culmination of a brilliantly simple reality TV show called The Ultimate Fighter, better known as TUF.
“It’s like the Real World but with fighters,” Griffin explained, referring to MTV’s long-running reality series, when asked to describe the show that launched him and 15 other amateur fighters into the big time.
Under the watchful eyes of MMA royalty Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture, who acted as coaches for the series, the fighters lived under one roof together.
Divided into middleweights and light heavyweights, they trained together and competed against one another in elimination fights every week with a final taking place at a live event and the winner walking away with a six-figure contract with the UFC.
For the Fertitta brothers, whose company, Zuffa, bought the struggling UFC for $2m in 2001 and installed White as president, the show was the last roll of the dice. It had to work.
Previously, millions of dollars had been heavily invested in trying to develop and promote the sport of MMA, but the trio encountered strong opposition at every turn as they fought to have their events sanctioned. Nothing was working.
It appeared the UFC would forever be tainted by the remnants of a previous era when ‘there are no rules’ was emblazoned on its posters. Mud sticks and it was blocking a path to progress.
The brothers were smart businessmen. They knew they had something big on their hands; it was just a matter of convincing others to see it, too. Mainstream America needed to wake up and start spending money on pay-per-views.
Frank and younger brother Lorenzo were born into business, attended top universities and had the ideal mentor in their dad, Frank Fertitta, Jr., who founded Station Casinos in 1976.
White, however, was the polar opposite. After scraping through school he began training boxers but had no experience of running a company as large as the UFC.
He did, though, learn from Lorenzo, a school friend he had re-connected with when he began running his pal’s private gym in the basement of his office in Las Vegas.
This, as Nick Gullo reveals in his book, Into the Cage: The Rise of UFC Nation, was White’s lucky break. It allowed him to see the process by which companies are launched and he watched Lorenzo work, quietly picking things up along the way.
Then, as a result of his management of MMA fighters Tito Ortiz and Liddell, White alerted the brothers the organisation was up for grabs and the UFC was soon theirs.
It was an odd looking trio, on paper at least.
Four years on and after repeatedly hitting brick walls, it came down to reality TV. Buoyed from the brothers’ other reality TV success, American Casino, it was hoped TUF would finally stop the company haemorrhaging money.
But getting it on TV was proving just as difficult as getting events sanctioned. No television network wanted it. Apparently America would not buy into a new sport and it was a unanimous “I’m out” from telly execs.
It looked bleak, but instead of cutting their losses and selling up they decided to produce the show themselves, stumping up $10m of their own money to cover the costs.
There wasn’t even a company willing to pay to have its logo on the Octagon mat during the elimination fights.
“This thing was like our Trojan Horse,” White explained in the documentary Fighting for a Generation.
“We’re going to put fights on TV, but put them on through reality,” he added.
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The finale would be broadcast live and free on 9 April, giving fans who would not normally fork out for PPV events a chance to see what a great sport mixed martial arts was.
It was squeaky bum time, as Sir Alex Ferguson might say.
Except The Ultimate Fighter was a monumental smash hit.
Each week the public got to know the individual fighters, listen to their stories and see how hard they train for a sport which paid bills and fed families. MMA was being looked at in a new light.
“People thought of [fighters] as a bunch of street thugs,” Liddell, a former champion, said in his autobiography, Iceman: My Fighting Life.
“They spoke in complete sentences and trained as hard as any other professional athlete,” he added.
It was captivating television that saw drunken rows, arguments over asparagus and one expletive-laden speech from White to the fighters following a mini revolt that threatened to derail the show before it began. The public were quickly gripped.
And so it came down to Griffin and Bonnar in the final, fighting on the undercard of Ken Shamrock v Rich Franklin, along with middleweight finalists Diego Sanchez and Kenny Florian.
“When Griffin and Bonner fought that night, the wave broke,” says MMA journalist, Gareth A Davies.
More than three million people – an unheard of number – tuned in and a new generation of fight fans was created. Griffin and Bonnar had matched each other blow for body bruising blow and America was taking note.
To put it simply: they beat the s**t of out each other for three rounds.
“It just captured public imagination and was a seminal moment in the growth of the sport,” Davies went on.
It was toe-to-toe as each man refused to give an inch, their bodies and the crowd willing them on. There was gold waiting for the winner and as the minutes ticked down, the noise levels increased.
“I would hate to have to score this fight,” screamed excited commentator Joe Rogan.
At the end of the third round, however, both men believed they’d have to summon the strength for an additional sudden death round given how close it was.
“I remember Dana came and told me right before the fight: ‘We have to have a winner for the contract so we might have a three-minute overtime round,’” Griffin explained.
“And if you notice [Stephan and I] both go back to our corners assuming that there’s going to be a three minute overtime round.”
There was no need. According to the judges Griffin won 29-28, 29-28, 29-28. His arm was raised, some fans cheered, others booed the decision, celebrities applauded and Bonnar collapsed to the floor.
This wasn’t even the main event.
“We knew right there, man. This is what we needed,” Lorenzo Fertitta later said.
Yet Griffin v Bonnar was to provide more drama.
So taken were they with the blockbuster, that White and the brothers decided there and then INSIDE the Octagon to also offer Bonnar a contract with the UFC.
Nobody was going to be a loser after that all-out war and just when it seemed impossible for the modest crowd to make more noise, the decision ensured they did. It was like a scene from Rocky.
Now, after more than 20 series, TUF has been instrumental in the company going from barely selling out 3,000-seater venues to filling 55,000 capacity arenas, with PPV sales – or lack of – no longer a concern.
Indeed, when coaches Couture and Liddell fought at the MGM a week after the final, there was a record 260,000 buys and the bosses haven’t looked back since.
The show has also helped launch the careers of British fighter Michael Bisping, who became a middleweight champion.
Without Griffin v Bonnar, would Conor McGregor be the star he is today and worth around $100m? He’d say yes, but it’s unlikely.
As for the heroes of the hour, Griffin, now retired, eventually became the light heavyweight champion in 2008, defeating Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson and was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. Bonnar, meanwhile, lost a 2006 rematch with Griffin and has twice been suspended for steroid use, though his efforts 10 years ago also sealed his place in the Hall of Fame.
Touchlingly, he later named his son Griffin.
And as for the UFC itself, the organisation was sold for a reported £3.2bn in 2016 in a staggering display of growth since those early years.
Business has certainly been good.