As far as Ryan Bader is concerned, the only way his transition to competing under the Bellator MMA banner could have gone any better is if he would have made more of a statement in his debut victory over Phil Davis.
“Maybe [if I had] put a bigger stamp on coming over and beating Phil Davis more convincingly, but other than that, [no],” said the reigning light heavyweight champion when asked about his first 18 months with the company, which produced a 4-0 record and a spot in the final of the World Heavyweight Grand Prix this weekend at Bellator 214.
“I came over, won the belt in Madison Square Garden, defended the belt against a tough opponent (Linton Vassell), finished him, [scored a] 15-second knockout (against Muhammed Lawal) and then dominated one of the best heavyweights in Bellator who would probably be fighting for the heavyweight title if this tournament wasn’t going on (Matt Mitrione), so it’s going great right now.
"I have one left in the tournament against one of the greatest of all time," added Bader, who squares off with Fedor Emelianenko in the tournament finale on Saturday night at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., with the heavyweight title hanging in the balance.
When the tournament bracket was unveiled, this was the matchup many people forecast, and Emelianenko is the one Bader hoped he would face in the final.
Although he was one of four natural light heavyweights entered into the eight-man competition, the 35-year-old veteran was instantly pegged as the favorite to run the table and win the whole thing. Now that he’s only a couple of days away from the fight he had hoped for and an opportunity to make history as the first two-weight world champion in Bellator MMA history, the battle-tested Bader is doing his best to keep his excitement and his nerves in check.
“I’ve got to check myself sometimes because I start getting a little hyped,” he said in regard to sharing the cage with the iconic Russian. “I have nerves before every fight — it doesn’t matter who I’m fighting — and every fight is your biggest fight, so I’ve always got to check myself. But I’ve been in there with everybody. I remember standing across from Rampage Jackson when I was younger — I watched him when I was coming up — and then I was fighting him in Japan. Standing across from those big names is nothing new and I respect the hell out of him, but I have something to do that night.”
He added: “For me, I look at it as he’s one of the greatest of all time and he represents himself and the sport very well, but he can’t bring his past wins in there.”
The 42-year-old Emelianenko is arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time and one of the most universally respected fighters in MMA history.
During the first 33 appearances, the man known as “The Last Emperor” earned 31 victories, with the lone blemishes on his record being a no-contest in his second bout with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and a doctor’s stoppage loss to Tsuyoshi Kohsaka in his fifth career start. But after winning his Strikeforce debut against Brett Rogers, Emelianenko suffered three consecutive stoppage losses, which seemed to indicate his days as a dominant force were behind him.
After taking and winning a trio of favorable contests following the disastrous end to his Strikeforce tenure, Emelianenko retired for 3 1/2 years and although he has gone 4-1 in five fights since returning to action, he enters Saturday’s main event showdown with Bader as a decided underdog.
Yet despite much of the shine coming off his star over the last several years, the list of fighters to actual defeat Emelianenko is sparse and securing a second title by besting a legendary figure still holds a great deal of significance to Bader.
“This tournament in and of itself is awesome, and no offense to Chael (Sonnen) or anything like that, but I don’t think it would be as sweet having two 205-pounders in the finals,” Bader said, laughing. “Coming in here, beating a true top-ranked heavyweight in Matt Mitrione and then being in the finals with one of the greatest heavyweights of all-time, one of the best to ever do it with Fedor is the cherry [on top]. Winning this tournament and winning the heavyweight championship in a Grand Prix style tournament by beating one of the best that ever lived for the heavyweight championship [would be awesome].”
And if he is able to maintain his winning ways and complete his march through the Heavyweight Grand Prix, the former Arizona State wrestler will add another accomplishment to a resume that continues to look more and more impressive with each successful trip he makes into the cage.
Prior to winning his first four starts under the Bellator MMA banner, Bader posted consecutive stoppage victories over Ilir Latifi and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira before departing the UFC, sending him into Saturday’s bout with Emelianenko on a six-fight winning streak. He’s 11-1 in his last dozen fights and 26-5 for his career, with two wins over both Davis and Nogueira, as well as victories over Jackson, Ovince Saint Preux, Rashad Evans and Mitrione.
He’s always been a guy who plays to his strengths and fights within himself and after nearly a dozen years as a professional, Bader has crafted an outstanding resume and stands as one of the more underappreciated fighters in the sport today.
“I feel like I’m the best fighter I have ever been,” said Bader, who credits his current run of success with a shift in mindset following his January 2016 loss to Anthony “Rumble” Johnson. “From that moment on, I was like, ‘I’m just going to go out there and have fun with it,’ embrace the week, the emotions and all of it.’ I know how good I am and how good I can be and I feel like right after that, I started coming into my own as the best fighter I’ve ever been.”
He added: “I think I am underappreciated a little bit, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because myself, my family, my coaches, my friends, the people around me know how good I am. I’m not out there looking for the recognition selfishly because I know what I can do.”
Additionally, he knows that adding a second title and a fifth straight win since signing with Bellator MMA would make denying his place as one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport today a difficult task.
“Coming out here, being a two-division champion, beating Fedor, going through the Heavyweight Grand Prix, it can’t be ignored,” said Bader. “I’ll be one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world.”
And he has no intentions of slowing down either.
“I’m 35 right now, but I’m the best physically and mentally I’ve ever been, like I said. I’m having fun with it and I was refreshed coming over to Bellator,” he said. “I’ve still got that ‘Honeymoon Phase’ going because I got to do this tournament and jump around weight classes. I've loved the tournament aspect because it reminds me of my wrestling days.”
“Going forward, after I win this belt, I know there has been talk that the winner of Kongo and [Minakov] gets the next title shot, but I’ll have two belts and I’ve got to decide what I’m going to do," he continued. "Perfect world, I would love to go out there and defend both, but we’ll see what happens. I’ve got a big fight in front of me, so I’ve got to get that first.”