When Ryan Bader hit the UFC back in 2008, he was a hot prospect. Fresh off the Ultimate Fighter with a ‘six figure’ contract - back when both of those statuses felt like they really meant something - he rolled out to a 12-0 unbeaten record, with five straight victories to start his run in the Octagon.
Then Bader hit a rough patch. Back-to-back losses to Jon Jones and Tito Ortiz didn’t begin any kind of real slide in the Power MMA fighter’s career — he still won eight of next eleven fights. But, they did seem to put ‘Darth’ on track to be forever a bridesmaid in the UFC’s light heavyweight division.
Fast forward several years and Bader is no longer in the UFC, but instead fighting under the Bellator banner, after completing his Zuffa contract on two KO wins. And unlike his time in the Octagon, his career with the Paramount Network promotion has been an unmitigated success.
On January 26th, in the headliner of Bellator 214, Bader captured the promotion’s grand prix and vacant heavyweight titles with a win over the legendary Fedor Emelianenko — adding to the light heavyweight belt he collected off Phil Davis back in 2017. That makes him a champion three times over under the bright lights of the UFC’s largest rival. As for what’s driven that success, Bader credits a lot of it to finally getting the hang of striking, somewhere around the time of his Rashad Evans fight in 2015 (transcript via MMA Fighting).
“That’s a hard punch right there,” Bader said of the left hook that dropped Fedor for the quick finish. “He went down — and I saw that over and over again already. So, it just kinda played out how we saw it.”
“In my past, I’ve always had the physical abilities,” he added. “They were always there, but sometimes the mental side of it — I was younger coming in as a wrestler, didn’t know what the hell I was doing on my feet. I literally didn’t know what I was doing on my feet until was I fighting Rashad [Evans in 2015], and I got a jab and was like, ‘Oh, it’s so much nicer being able to not freak out.’ So, the people around me, the coaches and people I have around me right now, we’re just in a good groove, we mesh really well, and it’s fun for me.
“I made a promise after my last loss to go out there and have fun, to not worry about the result of everything and hype it up and whatnot, and ever since then it’s been a great run.”
The now ‘champ-champ-champ’ is 7-1 since that win over Evans, with his only loss coming against Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson in the fight immediately following. He’s teased the idea of possibly facing Daniel Cormier in a cross-promotional superfight, but that seems like more of a pipe dream than a realistic opportunity.
More likely, Bader could be looking at a bout with former champion Vitaly Minakov, who faces Cheick Kongo at Bellator 216 on February 16th. The bout marks the first time the Russian has fought in North America since leaving Bellator back in 2014 with the title.