“[If it weren’t for Griffin vs. Bonnar] I’d be over picking up cigarette butts from the parking lot at Palace Station and I’d be sleeping on the underpass at I-15,” White told reporters years later. The story of Griffin vs. Bonnar quickly grew to mythical proportions and today it’s widely believed without that fight the UFC either wouldn’t be around or would be on a much lower level. Like the once-popular myth that it was the Fertittas and White that pushed the UFC towards rules and regulations while the old owners ran away from those things, the story of Griffin vs. Bonnar has been Zuffafied.
No, the fight didn’t save the UFC. There’s no reason to believe the key events after The Ultimate Fighter wouldn’t have taken place had Griffin and Bonnar not put on such a show, so the UFC would likely be in essentially the same spot it’s in today. Ultimately, it’s not a great fight that decides if a show is going to get renewed, but great ratings. No, there wasn’t a point in the fight when 10 million people were watching, as Dana White and Joe Rogan have claimed on a few occasions. The fight averaged 3.3 million viewers, which is a strong number, and the peak quarter hour was a 2.5 rating. That quarter hour was also the peak of the show. Looking at the quarter hour ratings alone (not a fool proof method, but the best we’ve got in the absence of real numbers and minute-by-minute ratings), the fight appeared to gain roughly 550,000 viewers from start to finish. That’s a good number, but not outstanding. To compare, the famous Leonard Garcia vs. Korean Zombie WEC match gained about 700,000 viewers from beginning to end (even more impressive when you consider the match started with 832,000 viewers).
The Ultimate Fighter was already successful enough to get second and third seasons, as shown by the negotiations prior to the finale and Spike officials’ excitement about the product after just two weeks. There wouldn’t have been talks for a third season if Spike had concerns about a second. The first post-TUF pay-per-view, UFC 52 featuring coaches Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell battling it out, was going to do the 300,000 buys or so that it would have done with an average light heavyweight final. The next key Ultimate Fighter season, the third, which led to the 2006 explosion on pay-per-view and monster television ratings, would have still happened. Really, it was the Leben vs. Koscheck feud that proved the concept and put the show on the map. The fans tuned in for a well-built feud between two well-built personalities, the two traits of UFC’s most successful events since that time, and even though the fight was dreadful, people still tuned in the next week.
In the years since the first finale, there have been many better fights than Griffin vs. Bonnar. There have even been fights that were likely more important. The success of the first Ortiz vs. Shamrock match may have been the reason Lorenzo Fertitta pulled plans to sell the company. The second Ortiz vs. Shamrock, as well as Hughes vs. Gracie two months earlier, blew up the company’s pay-per-view business. The third Ortiz vs. Shamrock proved UFC as a television property. The first Lesnar vs. Mir set the company up for the biggest run it ever had in North America. However, none of those matches happened on a night that had obvious potential to be a clear step forward. On US television, only five UFC matches have had opportunities on nights like that: Robbie Lawler vs. Steve Berger, which was chosen after the fact to air on Fox Sports Net’s Best Damn Sports Show Period in 2002; the three Ultimate Fighter finale bouts, and Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos on UFC’s 2011 Fox debut. Of those, the only great fight was Griffin vs. Bonnar.
Griffin vs. Bonnar did help in the sense of causing Spike to lock down a deal with the promotion right away (Spike officials were not the only television network executives at the finale). White frequently tells the story of the deal was squared away in an alley after the show, which by all accounts is true. A deal was inevitable, especially with Spike’s top franchise, Raw, set to depart in the fall of 2005.