Over the last decade, Ryan Bader has quietly gone from the winner of The Ultimate Fighter to one of the top ten best light heavyweights of the modern era, and yet, a championship belt has always alluded him. He was coming up in the UFC at a time when Jon Jones was entering his prime, which proved to be an insurmountable task for any light heavyweight to solve. Still, Bader marched on, notching wins against various legends like Rashad Evans, Rampage Jackson and Antônio Rogério Nogueira only to run into an elite brick wall like Anthony Johnson, Lyoto Machida or Glover Teixeira.
Still, he trucked on, racking up wins and reaching the no. 4 spot in the UFC light heavyweight rankings before jumping ship to Bellator, where he’s scheduled to fight Phil Davis, a man he beat by split-decision in 2015, for the Bellator light heavyweight title in Madison Square Garden.
As far as promotion switching goes, Ryan Bader couldn’t have done it better, and his enthusiasm and joy for the sport still resonates as he spoke with Uproxx about his upcoming fight in New York City which by all accounts is Bellator’s biggest show ever.
It’s pretty darn cool that you’re headed to Bellator and you get the title shot right off the bat. Can you tell me about that phone call and how that all happened?
Yeah you know there were some preliminary talks about fighting for the title right away regardless, but it was kind of a “let’s wait until September, November what not,” but we wanted to fight on this card. So, we accepted a fight with King Mo and then I got a call one Sunday from my manager saying, “Hey King Mo hurt, he’s out but it’s good news, we got Phil Davis.” So I said: “Awesome, when’s the date?” I was assuming it wasn’t on the New York card, and he said “No, New York, everything’s the same. You’re fighting for the title.” So it’s the best of both worlds, I get to fight in New York City and I also get to fight for a title there.
You’re happy about your contract. You’re extremely high ranked, and now you get a title shot in Madison Square Garden. It really doesn’t seem like it gets any better.
It worked out great. I’m extremely happy about it. I’m happy where I am in my career, I’m happy to come over to Bellator, I love what they have to say, love what they’re all about and I’m going to put on a show for them in New York City and win a title. Finally, I get the opportunity to fight for a title. Everything is falling into place, now it’s just up to going out there Saturday and doing it.
You don’t usually see a top five fighter coming off of a two-fight winning streak heading into free agency. Did you make an effort to get to the contract negotiation process or did this just kind of fall into your lap?
So the whole process works where they re-sign you when you have one fight left. And in terms of re-signing, I had two fights left when I fought Illar Latiffi in Germany. I ended up knocking him out, then I had one fight left, and I didn’t know if that was going to be six months or whatever, but I got called in on late notice to take the Nogueira fight, then they came to us and said let’s get a new contract. We passed on that one and fought our contract out, and kind of right there and then we knew that potentially that could be our last UFC fight.
Then went to the table with Bellator and got a great offer and great terms. We kind of new that UFC wouldn’t want to match that one, it’s just something that we could have asked for less, we could have asked for certain things, and UFC would be more required to match, but I got a great contract with Bellator, and knowing what we were going to ask for, I was 90 percent certain that UFC was not going to match it. So I kind of knew that when I fought my contract out that it more than likely would be my last UFC fight.
Was that bittersweet for you going into that last fight against Nogueira?
Yeah, for sure. I’ve fought almost ten years in the UFC, 20 fights, and not a lot of people get to say they fought 20 times in the UFC. I’ve fought all over the world. I have great memories. I won the Ultimate Fighter and my whole career is basically in the UFC. I went to Australia, London a bunch of times, Japan, Australia, Sweden, so it was a little bittersweet. During my last fight for them against Nogueira, I was just soaking it all in. I think it ran its course. It was time to move on to the next chapter. I don’t have a lot of bad things to say about the UFC. I had a great time there, but I just loved what Bellator was all about, what they had to say, the way I was treated. Now here we are, an opportunity to fight for the title in Madison Garden in New York City. Can’t get any better than that. I have no regrets. I’m super excited. I’m refreshed and looking forward to it.