It’s been almost two years since Ryan Bader made the decision to join Bellator MMA, and he hasn’t had any reason to look back.
The 35-year-old is 3-0 in his new trappings after making his debut at Bellator 180 in June 2017 at the promotion’s Madison Square Garden debut. There, he faced Phil Davis for a second time — their first meeting took place in the UFC — and once again Bader beat Davis by decision to claim the promotion’s 205-pound title. His first defense ended in a dominant TKO victory over Linton Vassell and he’s currently making his way through the Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix after needing just 15 seconds to punch out Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal in the quarterfinals.
Bader has won five straight dating back to September 2016, including his last two fights in the UFC, and he told Luke Thomas on The MMA Hour on Monday that things couldn’t be going better for his career.
“I’m loving it, I’m having fun,” Bader said. “I came over to still fight the best guys in the world. I came over, beat Phil Davis, who’s arguably top three across any of the promotions. In Madison Square Garden, huge, huge card.
“And then for me, it’s just being able to do things like this. I get asked, ‘Hey, you want to jump in this heavyweight tournament for the heavyweight belt and you get to keep your light heavyweight belt and we’ll see what happens after that?’ Hell yeah, let’s do that. So that’s what I love about being over here. I can do things like this. I’m fighting Matt Mitrione, coming up on Friday and we’re in a grand prix, and we’ve got Fedor (Emelianenko) and Chael Sonnen on the other side. It’s huge. I get to go try to be a two-division champion.”
On Friday, Bader takes on former UFC heavyweight contender Matt Mitrione in the main event of Bellator 207 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. The winner will proceed to the heavyweight grand prix finals, where a vacant title will be awarded to the tournament champion.
That would make Bader Bellator’s first fighter to hold titles in two divisions simultaneously, the same two divisions that Daniel Cormier reigns over inside the Octagon. During their time in the UFC together, Cormier and Bader teased a potential feud, and were actually booked to face one another at a June 2015 event before Cormier was instead moved to a vacant light heavyweight title fight with Anthony Johnson at UFC 187.
Bader was asked if he’d still like to fight “DC” someday and acknowledged that it was one of the opportunities he regrets missing out on with the UFC.
“For sure. He’s a competitor, he’s a great champion, he always has been his whole life,” Bader said. “He’s the same way, I’m the same way, I want to test myself against the best. He’s a double champ right now, heavyweight and light heavyweight over in the UFC, and yeah, I wish I would have got that fight. I was trying for that fight for a long time.”
Even without getting the chance to prove himself against Cormier, Bader has built up an impressive résumé of his own. Though he fell short against the likes of former champions Jon Jones, Lyoto Machida, and Tito Ortiz, he also compiled a record of 15-5 in the UFC, notching victories over former champions Rashad Evans and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, as well as contenders Ilir Latifi, Ovince Saint Preux, and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (twice).
Given his résumé since winning the eighth season of The Ultimate Fighter, Bader is comfortable with where he stands in the overall light heavyweight rankings.
“It depends what (Alexander) Gustafsson was doing, where they’d want to put him, but I think I’d be one of the No. 1 contenders,” Bader said. “I beat the guy that’s ranked No. 3, and OSP’s in there, and a couple of other guys. I was always right there.
“But I think I’d be right under Cormier, Gustafsson being out having [not] fought in so long. They always like to put him above me because of the bigger fights that he had, but I’d be right there.”
Bader also revealed that he worked with Stipe Miocic ahead of the heavyweight’s failed title defense against Cormier this past July at UFC 226, and wouldn’t have been surprised at either man coming out on top in that encounter.
But despite all the talk of his past employer, Bader expressed nothing but enthusiasm for his current run in Bellator. He’s especially pleased with the culture of the promotion, especially the inclusion of tournaments that he feels eliminate unnecessary drama and put the focus squarely on the fights themselves.
“You don’t have to vie for a fight. You don’t have to sit there and get on the mic and say, ‘Hey, I want to fight Fedor, I want to fight Chael,’ or this and that,” Bader said. “It’s a bracket, it’s what I’m used to. I grew up in a bracket sport, in wrestling. You win, that does the talking, you move on.
“That’s what I like about this whole tournament for the heavyweight championship, because if there wasn’t, nowadays it’s, ‘Who gets the title shot? Who’s gonna bring the most eyeballs? Who’s gonna talk the most shit? Who’s gonna do that?’”