Two fights into the heavyweight portion of his mixed martial arts career, Ryan Bader looks right at home. At Friday night’s Bellator 207, Bader followed his 15-second knockout of Muhammad Lawal by steamrolling Matt Mitrione in a lopsided unanimous decision. He was in complete control throughout, and so far through two rounds of the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix, he has yet to absorb even a single significant strike.
On Saturday, Bader will find out his opponent in the final – either the legendary Russian Fedor Emelianenko or the brash American Chael Sonnen.
He’s hoping for Emelianenko, just for the honor of fighting an all-time great, but either way, the current Bellator light-heavyweight champion can see the finish line, and looks poised to become the first man ever to hold two Bellator title belts simultaneously.
Being “champ-champ” is all the rage in MMA over the last few years. In the UFC, Conor McGregor did it; Daniel Cormier is currently doing it. Interestingly, the latter holds the belts in the same divisions that Bader is gunning for.
Rivalry reignited? Cormier and Bader never fought in the UFC despite being linked for a fight in 2015, and later, having a run-in at a press conference that seemed to portend a title match between them.
It’s a fight Bader would still love, especially now with some serious stakes in play and both men riding parallel waves of momentum.
“I do think about that,” he said moments after winning for the 11th time in his last 12 fights. “We all say, ‘woulda coulda shoulda.’ A big reason for me to come over here was I thought I was the best in the world but I never had the opportunity to show it. Over here, I did. So yeah, it’s always there. I’m a competitor. I want to be the best in the world. I’m not going to say, ‘Oh yeah, there’s another organization [with a better guy],’ you know. Taking nothing away from him, he’s a dominant champion. One of the best to ever do it. Of course I want it. But will that ever happen? No.”
Bader (26-5) cites his losses to Glover Teixeira in 2013 and Anthony Johnson in 2016 as learning experiences, after which he decided to go out and have fun rather than focusing on long-range goals.
“My mindset has changed,” he said. “When I was fighting guys like Glover I was second-guessing myself. Am I the best in the world? Do I deserve to be up here. Now I know it.”
Now 35, Bader says he feels that he is in his athletic prime, and so is looking forward to whatever challenges lay ahead. Should he capture the heavyweight belt, he may have a decision ahead of him regarding which division he will make his home. He says it is possible that he’ll stay at heavyweight, although he has a hope of attempting to simultaneously defend both belts. He likes the idea of giving current middleweight champ Gegard Mousasi a chance of becoming a “champ-champ” himself.
“Hell yeah,” he said. “Those kinds of fights, that’s why I came here to Bellator.”
Holding on to both titles may be an impossibility – the promotion will likely want both belts to be in constant circulation. It may be just as unlikely as his desired pairing with Cormier. At least one is truly within his grasp, unlike his dream pairing.
“I think I match up well with him, especially now,” Bader said. “If I would’ve matched up with him five years ago I don’t think I’d do all that well. I think now I beat him. It’s just one of those things, it’s too bad it’ll never happen.”