Ryan Bader entered the Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix as one of the favorites among the oddsmakers and one round in, he thinks he’s still a good bet.
Though Bader is actually competing outside of his natural weight class, his status as Bellator’s 205-pound champion made him a logical pick heading into the eight-man heavyweight tournament, and he lived up to even the loftiest expectations with a 15-second TKO of Muhammed Lawal at Bellator 199 in May. It was the fifth straight win for Bader, who next faces Matt Mitrione in the main event of Bellator 207 this Friday at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.
Unlike Bader, Mitrione has spent his entire career competing at heavyweight, notching wins over the likes of Fedor Emelianenko, Derrick Lewis, and Roy Nelson. The latter victory propelled him into his grand prix semifinal matchup with Bader and the winner of that bout will go on to fight either Emelianenko or Chael Sonnen to claim a vacant Bellator championship.
Bader was in studio on The MMA Hour on Monday and he explained to host Luke Thomas why he’s confident that he’ll get past the larger Mitrione.
“If you look at his record, he’s never fought a wrestler,” Bader said. “You can call Roy Nelson a wrestler, but he’s never fought a dynamic, explosive wrestler. Not only that, I have power in both my hands. I can knock you out, I can take you down, I can grind you out, I can finish you on the ground, and I kind of look it as a Linton Vassell fight a couple of fights ago, when I defended the belt against him. He’s a big boy. He’s 250 now, he’s a big boy. In controlling him, I feel that he has better jiu-jitsu than Matt, ended up getting my position and finishing him on the ground.
“But that being said, Matt is very, very talented. He’s a great fighter. I think his biggest attribute is his mind. He thinks he’s gonna win, he goes out there, and believes in himself. He’s very quick on his feet, he moves around well, he’s got a good right hand. I think he’s not really a natural southpaw, but it’s one of those things where you’ve got to be ready. He has a lot of first-round finishes, but I’m willing to go to that place not a lot of people like to go.”
The single-elimination tournament format has been a boon for Bader, a Division I All-American wrestler at Arizona state who appreciates being able to see who is next in the bracket and knowing that his next fight will not be too far off.
Bader was asked if he had any trepidation about going up in weight, especially in light of Bellator welterweight champion Rory MacDonald’s recent lopsided loss to middleweight champion Gegard Mousasi. However, the 35-year-old expects the size difference to be negligible, and his own physical advantages to be anything but.
“Matt’s one of the bigger guys,” Bader said. “But at the end of the day he’s going to be 10-15 pounds heavier than me if he comes in at low 240 like he was talking about on social media and so for me, I got up to 238, 239 this camp. I’m sitting around at 230, 235. I think it’s between light heavyweights and heavyweights, a lot of us can be considered a heavyweight regardless. I’ll cut down from 230 to 205. It’s not really a big jump.
“I have certain attributes that I feel that I bring to this heavyweight tournament that some of the heavyweights don’t have. That cardio, the quickness, and one thing that Matt’s used to having over other people is that speed and that athletic ability, which I have also. Plus I have some of the best cardio in the light heavyweight division, let alone the heavyweight division.”
Bader will have the opportunity to put that boast to the test against a bevy of challengers should he win the heavyweight tournament and its prize, which would make him Bellator’s first-ever fighter to hold championships in two divisions simultaneously. He has to win two more fights first and in that at least, Bader has some uncertainty; not necessarily in his ability to perform on fight night, but who it is he could potentially be meeting in the final.
Emelianenko and Sonnen compete in the other semifinal at Bellator 208 on Saturday.
“I have no idea on this fight,” Bader said, when asked to predict who he expects to win Saturday’s main event. “It’s a tough call. Chael’s a wrestler and I always kind of lean towards wrestlers, but Fedor is one of those unknowns where he can come in and just knock your block off right away. …
“And what Fedor has too is you get in there and you’re across the cage from him and you’re like, ‘I’m fighting Fedor right now’ and I think Chael might have a little bit — so I think it’s just one of those fights where for me, it’s 50/50, whoever implements their game plan. If Chael can go out and get three takedowns, one a round, I think he wins. If Fedor stuffs two of his shots right at the beginning, I think it’s Fedor’s fight.”