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.
I spoke to Phil Davis and he said that some of his sluggish performance in your first fight had to do with the fact that you guys were fighting at about 4 am local time in Sweden. Did you feel that as well?
I would agree with him on that. That’s one of those fights where I walked out of there and I thought: “Man, that was lackluster.” I could not get my body going and get those fast twitch muscles going. It was just one of those things where I felt stale. I walked out of there with the win, but it wasn’t the way I wanted to win. It was one of those things where I was like: “Ugh, it is what it is.” I made do. But we were fighting at 3:30 am in Sweden, and I hadn’t seen the sun for a week straight, it was one of those things where we were both in that atmosphere and ended up getting the job done but now I feel like I’ve grown so much. So that’s why I want to go in there. That’s why I love rematches, you get to go in there and use that as a baseline, show people how much I’ve grown, and where I’m going.
What are your expectations for this fight? Usually, the fighter who won is kind of in control of the rematch to a degree. You beat him before, he’s the champion now, and you’re coming into, as he told me, his turf — Bellator. What’s going through your head?
Nothing, It’s just another fight. That’s the way I’ve been looking at the last couple of fights. Go in there and have fun. We laugh in the back, warm up and then go in there prepared. I’m injury free and I’m so much better than our last fight, mentally and physically. I have a new coaching staff I’ve been drilling with, I just feel so much more comfortable. For me I don’t just want to go in there and not only win, I want to make a statement. Show all the Bellator fans, and UFC fans, that I’m for real. That I’m the champion. That I’m going to hold this title for a long time. So there’s no added pressure because I’m working for a new organization and fighting for the title — every fight there is a ton of pressure. You be thankful and do your best, and my best is going to be a lot better than last time.
How are you more comfortable?
Just experience, and after my last loss I went into myself and said: “Alright, what is going on here? Let’s fix some things.” One is not making a big deal out of every single fight. I need to go in there and have fun. Have laughs in the back. That’s when I fight my best. So I did that my last two fights and I had two stoppages. That’s a mentality that I’m bringing into this fight. I have upwards of 30 pro fights some of them didn’t count on my record that were on Ultimate Fighter, so I have a lot of experience, and it’s learning from that experience.
I remember you on the Ultimate Fighter sparring Anderson Silva hard. He recently said that that he’s still learning. Will the learning ever stop when it comes to Mixed Martial Arts?
Not in this sport. You could be really good at golf, and that’s one sport. It’s almost like we have four or five different sports that we have to be proficient in — wrestling, boxing, ju-jitsu, and if we lose, it’s not like you lost a game — you could get hurt in there. For me, we’re constantly learning, and one thing that’s different, from my last fight to all the way to now is new coaches like Andre Pederneiras and the guys from Nova União. I’ve learned so much in the past six, seven months, then in a lot of years previously. A ton of drilling, a ton of work on the ground, a ton of work on striking, that’s where I’ve really grown a lot.
Do you plan on finishing your career with Bellator?
Yeah, I do. My plan right now, I have a two-year contract here and I’ve got six fights. I Start next weekend and win the belt then will hold the belt the entirety of my contract, then I’ll sign an even better contract. I’m nowhere close to stopping, I haven’t even thought about it. I’m healthy, I’m in a good place, I’m excited, I’m motivated, and I’m ready to just do it.
You really do seem like a different Ryan Bader. Even in the last few years with your social media, like the goofy “Master Bader” persona. Where did that come from?
It was just one of those things where I felt like I can just be myself, and not worry about things or what people are saying. And that has nothing to do with the UFC trying to keep their fighters from not doing things, or marketing themselves, it was just one of those things where it freed up my mind and just was me. I can’t really tell you, maybe it’s just me getting older, not giving a shit anymore, about what other people say. It was just a combination of things.
It also seems like you’re getting back to the goofy guy who was on The Ultimate Fighter.
Yeah, for sure. It was just one of those things I felt like the whole process could be like: “let’s just do what we want to do and have fun with it.” And mentally in the last couple of fights, literally we will be laughing in the back right before a huge fight. For me when I fight like that I fight my best. So it’s not only on social media, it’s just my attitude towards the whole game. I just don’t take myself too seriously anymore. And I don’t take the game too seriously. Just go out there and know what’s best for me, and know where I can be to perform the best.
With that said, you’re getting older now, almost a decade in the UFC, you have wins over Feijao, Rashad Evans, obviously Phil Davis, Nogueira, Rampage, Jardine… Are you aware that you are now a third generation MMA elder statesman?
It’s kind of crazy, cause, even a couple of years ago when we fought down in Australia back when Bert was in the UFC, he gave some speech in the back and said: “It’s hard to get here but it’s harder staying here. Ask a veteran like Ryan Bader over there. I was kind of taken aback because I don’t really see myself as a veteran. I feel like a young guy that’s in the sport, and improving himself. But when you go back and think about it, you’re like “Man I’ve fought the who’s who of MMA. And it’s crazy when all the younger fighters come up and they’re like: “Man I’ve been watching you forever, and I’m a fan.” It’s kind of surreal because I see myself as a young guy still. I still see myself as that guy coming in, still trying to prove himself.
That’s probably a good place to be when you’re fighting. You want to stay hungry.
Yeah, I don’t want to look back and say “oh I did this and this and that’s good enough.” No, I still have a lot of different goals left.
You do have a couple of losses, from big, big, big, names. Which one would you want to take back?
Well, he says he’s retired, but it would be a rematch with Tito Oritz. I still don’t hear the end of it. “Ryan’s a good fighter but he lost to Tito Oritz.” And I have nothing against Tito at all. I think he’s a good guy, and I think he’s a good fighter, but it’s one of my low points in my career. And that’s one fight I definitely want back. I know he’s retired, but he’s a Bellator fighter, and that could potentially happen some day.
I can hear the sting in your voice, but Chael Sonnen just brought up the fact that he thinks that Tito Ortiz is the worst, and he’s ashamed of his loss to him. So maybe with some weird MMA Math, you two could fight each other and hash that out.
I’m definitely open to fight guys like Sonnen and Wanderlei and all those types of guys. I just think that those are going to be fun fights and big fights. There’s going to be some fights in this division for me that make sense as far as a fighter that deserves the next title fight, younger guys that are coming up, but there’s also some of those fights money fights where they could be fighting me for a title and it’s an even bigger fight because of their name. That’s one of those things — do you fight the tough guys that are up and comers, that nobody has really heard about, or do you fight these legends that might not be on the top of their game, but they will draw eyeballs. That’s intriguing to me, you know, we can go both ways.
Maybe do one here one there?
Yeah definitely, there’s no animosity. Whenever I fought anybody, and I fought pretty much everybody, I’ve never had animosity towards anybody, and the veterans in the sport are the same, they know that. I like Sonnen, I like Wand. If we can potentially line up a great fight, let’s do it. I’m definitely hoping for those sort of fights for sure.
Will you ever be able to live down possibly the grossest reality TV show ever filmed?
Oh no, I look back and laugh at that. I think it’s funny. I’ve got a good buddy in Kyle Kingsbury, I fought him on the show and he did that on the sushi. I ate some fruit that was peed in, and it is what it is, I didn’t know at the time, it was afterward when I was like “Uh, I’m good with it. Whatever.” But what he did with that sushi… Fortunately, it was not me, and I will say that one was a little gross, but we all had a good laugh because it wasn’t us.
It wasn’t you of course.
The Illir Latifi knockout was one of the best of the year, can you walk me through that?
Well, we knew he was a super strong guy, and we knew that first round was going to be tough as far as winning that round. So we’re going to keep it light out there, you saw us kind of swing out a jab here, kind of engage him, threw in some high kicks, a little question mark kick to kind of gauge what his movement was like. I shot out a few take downs, and it was literally like hitting a brick wall, he’s super strong.
Going into the second, we noticed that he kept on ducking his head and moving when he would kind of come in. So when I was backing him up on that cage, for me I was thinking I’m going to throw a one-two then throw a high kick, and he’s going to run into that shin. So I went in throwing that one two, not to hit him, but to make him move and I started to throw that kick and as I started to throw that kick I saw that he wasn’t going to his left, he was ducking down, so I turned it into an awkward-looking knee at the last moment, but it just hit him perfectly, and he flew back and it was done.
Ask any fighter, that’s the best moment. Not only have you knocked somebody out spectacularly but the fight’s over, and your done. That was a good highlight and a fun fight.
He literally goes flying. It’s almost like a video game. Were you kind of astonished in the moment?
Yeah, because I hit him up on my quad. My quad was really really sore for two days. My quad was the size of a softball in one spot. It was one of those things where as I was doing it I knew I was going to connect with something, but the way I hit him and he kind of jerked back, and flew back, I was astonished. Yeah. Obviously you want the other fighter to be okay, and he woke up and he was all right. But we got to walk out of that cage with the highlight knockout victory.
And you don’t really see clean walk off KOs too often in MMA. There are so many sometimes unnecessary follow up shots. Can you explain what it’s like to have the self control to know you don’t have to follow up?
First off, I’m not that guy. You now they always say fight until the referee pulls you off, but if I know somebody’s out, I have respect for all the opponents I fight. I’m not looking to go in there and land three extra blows when the guy is clearly down and the fight is over. I don’t want their family and friends back home seeing that guy get hit three, four, five, more times laying on the canvas when he doesn’t need to get hit. You know that guy might have kids, he has a family, he has friends. It’s a competition for me. I’m not looking to go in there and hurt the guy. I’m looking to go in there and win it. I mean I’m not responsible for the competition, but if I know a guy’s out I’m not going to sit there and beat on him and use the excuse that the ref didn’t pull me off. If I know the guy’s good and out I’m done.