<
>

Bonnar: If you don't like me, root for Tito

By and large, the impact of mixed martial arts on Stephan Bonnar's life has been extremely positive.

It's paid some of his bills (not all of them, but he's made a living). It's made him a professional athlete, despite his open admission he was never considered particularly athletic. Of course, it's given him joy, too. He once compared the feeling of speaking to UFC commentator Joe Rogan after winning a fight to "heaven."

In November 2012, however, the sport had a different impact on Bonnar and his family.

On the same day Bonnar's wife went into labor with the couple's first child, news broke he had tested positive for the anabolic steroid Drostanolone following a loss to Anderson Silva at UFC 153 the previous month. It was the second failed drug test of his career and the weight of social media judgment fell swiftly on him. There wasn't much in the way of escaping it.

"The first baby picture we posted (online) -- my wife's still in the hospital -- you've got people calling me a piece of s--- cheater," Bonnar told ESPN.com. "It just made her so embarrassed. It was really hard for her to forgive me for that."

Bonnar, 37, refrained from speaking publicly about the failed test until March 2013. He admitted to taking steroids prior to the Silva fight, but said he did so before accepting the bout, while he was under the impression he was retired. A short notice offer to fight an all-time great like Silva was too good to pass up, the longtime UFC veteran said, and he thought the steroid would be out of his body by the time he was tested.

On Saturday, Bonnar will fight for the first time since UFC 153. He will do so under the Bellator MMA banner opposite his sudden rival, Tito Ortiz. The bout headlines Bellator 131 at Valley View Casino Center in San Diego.

Bonnar's return has been met with mixed reviews. He remains something of a fan favorite and his epic fight against Forrest Griffin in April 2005 will always be considered a catalyst to the growth of the sport. At the same time, he's a twice proven drug user and a professional wrestling-type confrontation between he and Ortiz in September to promote their fight had many in the sport rolling their eyes.

The beauty of this return for Bonnar, however, is that he no longer cares about things he used to. His legacy, his image -- event his safety and the result of the actual fight -- Bonnar says he does not care.

"I think that last experience is kind of what brought this me out," Bonnar said. "F--- trying to get people to like me. If you don't like me, then f------ root for Tito and kiss my ass.

"Usually when you're fighting, you want to make sure you get that win. You can't take too much damage. You don't want to have to have surgery and be on the shelf. I don't give a damn. I don't care if I break anything. I just want to take it to this guy and have a brawl."

It was this exact situation Bonnar repeatedly asked for in UFC offices when he was still active in 2012. Despite putting together a three-fight winning streak in late 2011, he had no interest in a title run. He wanted fights based on names and "brawl" potential. He wanted gigs like a coaching job on The Ultimate Fighter reality series, opposite another aging fighter in Griffin (who is now retired).

The UFC did not share his vision, so in mid-2012, Bonnar unofficially retired. He took a cycle of steroids, he says, because he wasn't planning on being drug tested. He wasn't expecting to fight.

"I went into the UFC offices, begging for big-name fights, promising to put on a barn burner," Bonnar said. "Dana would say, 'Whoever is next in line for the title run, that's how it works here. If you're not interested in the title, then hang them up. We only want guys who are hungry for that title.' I was like, 'Well, I'm kind of past that. (UFC champion Jon) Jones already whooped my ass. I just want to put on a show with someone like Forrest, go that route.

"As a consolation, they offered me a job with the UFC. Paycheck, health insurance, getting to go around and talk to people about being awesome, basically. Charity, outreach programs. That's where I was with my life."

Then the Silva opportunity came. And the failed drug test. And the loss of certain UFC perks due to the failed drug test. Official retirement and a day job. Now, suddenly in late 2014, Tito Ortiz.

The build-up to the fight has been interesting, involving a masked man, friends-turned-enemies, allegations of double-crossing coaches and so on.

From the time it was announced, for Bonnar, it's been an opportunity to fight one an individual that's rubbed him wrong for years. It's the kind of fight he also thought was well behind him during the last year, during which he embraced the life of a day trader and basically stopped watching fights altogether.

The possibility of the fight was brought up awhile ago to Bonnar, but he didn't hold his breath. He was still under UFC contract and even if he got a release, his assumption was that former Bellator president Bjorn Rebney would want him to go through the promotion's tournament format before booking an Ortiz fight. When Scott Coker replaced Rebney at the helm this summer, Bonnar actually believed the fight was even less likely.

"Tito's manager, Dave Thomas, actually called seeing if I could fight for Bellator," Bonnar said. "He asked if I had interest in fighting Tito and I said, 'Good luck with that.' I figured they weren't giving me Tito right off the bat. When Bjorn Rebney was out, I said, 'Coker will never go for that.' I thought it was something they got close with on Bjorn but would give up on with Coker. I actually thought Coker would be the harder egg to crack, but turned out he was on the same page.

Ortiz, who has said his share leading up to the bout, offered one final take on it coming together: "Bonnar got hired in Bellator to be my warmup to a title fight. That's 100 percent the truth."

Bonnar doesn't care one way or another if that's accurate.

This month marks the 13-year anniversary of his first professional MMA fight. He carved out a fan base for himself one 15-minute brawl at a time, only to think he'd have to leave the sport with his tail between his legs after UFC 153. He has his share of regrets about that, but when it comes to moving forward, it's changed the way he looks at a return to cage fighting. He's here to enjoy himself and ignore the critics.

"I'm doing this because this is what I went into Dana's office asking for (in 2012) and it's a chance to fight somebody I really don't like as a person."