For years, light heavyweight Stephan Bonnar dreamed of squaring off with Tito Ortiz. But despite numerous attempts to secure a matchup against the former world champion, the contest never materialized.
That is until Bellator MMA and CEO Scott Coker came calling with an offer that Bonnar could not refuse - a contract to do battle with Ortiz on Saturday, November 15, in the Bellator 131 main event.
"In the UFC it wasn't happening ... and then I get a call to be in the main event on a big show and fight the guy that I consider the biggest a**hole the sport's ever known." remarks Bonnar. "It's like the perfect matchup ... I never liked him and it's a blessing that someone's gonna pay me to punch him ... it's like a dream come true."
A hard-nosed competitor with a reputation for welcoming all challengers, Bonnar - a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Taekwondo - first broke through on the national level as a finalist on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter.
Losing to eventual world champion Forrest Griffin, Bonnar solidified his hall-of-fame-career by competing inside the Octagon on 15 occasions, taking on current and former champions like Jon Jones, Rashad Evans, and Mark Coleman.
But after a second-round TKO loss to Anderson Silva in October 2012, Bonnar called it quits.
"[Against] Anderson I felt like everything was going good, like my game plan was winning and working and I was winning the bout, and before I knew it he landed a perfectly timed, perfectly placed shot and I was out of there," offers Bonnar. "He was like a ninja in there; everything was going fine, and all of a sudden fight's over. That's how Anderson Silva is."
After his fight with Silva, Bonnar announced his retirement from MMA at age 35, only to fail a subsequent drug test. He quietly retreated from the spotlight of prize fighting, trying his hand at color commentating and broadcasting, but the allure of settling a score with Ortiz was enough to prompt a comeback.
However, in order for Bonnar to resume competition, this time for rival promotion Bellator, he would first need the permission and approval of his former employers, the UFC.
"When it was offered to me, I wanted to make sure I didn't burn any bridges with the UFC. I've always had a good relationship with the UFC and Dana [White] and Lorenzo [Fertitta], and I didn't want that to change," explains Bonnar. "I was technically still under contract with them so I wouldn't have been able to fight unless they gave their blessing and released me ... and [Dana] was like 'go for it, kick his ass, make a lot of money.'"
Now 37, Bonnar has called upon a cast of Ortiz's former training partners and coaches for this fight camp, including Justin McCully, with whom he engineered a chaotic promotional stunt back in September, goading Ortiz into an impromptu altercation on national television.
The ensuing melee and fracas appeared to serve its purpose, as the MMA world once again began to take notice of Bonnar, who is making no allusions about a full-fledged comeback, insisting that his singular motivation is taking out Ortiz.
"If I derail him now ... I think it'll ruin him ... his whole world is gonna come crumbling down," adds Bonnar. "He's trying to intimidate me and get me all scared, but I fought tougher dudes than him."
And while Bonnar has, in fact, competed against a roster of MMA's best, he now enters competition after a more-than two-year absence from the sport, which has changed quite a bit since his last professional bout, most notably for its stance on performance enhancing drugs.
But Bonnar, a two-time offender, insists the sport is much cleaner than back in 2012.
"I've been tested twice already, the first time six or eight weeks ago, and then last week I tested again. And of course we'll be tested again for the fight," comments Bonnar. "It seems like they're doing it more, especially for the higher profile fights and fighters that they're going around and testing them outside of competition. It seems like that's the route athletic commissions are going nowadays."
For now, Stephan Bonnar, a man who previously competed with a pair of broken feet and a broken nose back in 2010, is simply excited to jump back in the cage and slug it out with Ortiz. But whether he sticks around for a while longer, well, that remains a completely different conversation altogether.