Ryan Bader made a name for himself as one of the hardest workers on Arizona State’s wrestling team, posting an 88-34 college record during his career in the early 2000s. His former coach, Thom Ortiz, believes his work ethic and dedication are his greatest assets.
“He worked hard. Cain (Velasquez), Bader and CB (Dolloway), they worked hard for Arizona State,” Ortiz said. “I would watch Bader wrestle Cain; no one wants to do that. So I’d have to say what stood out about him was his work ethic.”
That same work ethic that helped him at ASU has him on the doorstep of a UFC title shot. But for that shot to materialize, which would be the realization of an eight-year quest for Bader, he has one more opponent to defeat.
Bader, who owns and trains at Power MMA and Fitness in Gilbert, is preparing for a rematch with mixed martial arts legend Antonio Rogerio Nogueira Saturday in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
The fourth-ranked UFC light heavyweight, Bader is coming off a second-round knockout victory over Ilir Latifi in September.
He kept in shape after the win, anticipating he would be offered a fight against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. But Rua had to pull out of the fight because of an injury, and Bader decided to take some time off and vacation with his family. It was during the vacation that he got a call from the UFC offering another opponent: Nogueira.
“Alexander Gustaffson got hurt,” Bader said. “(They) asked us if we wanted to step in and fight Lil’ Nogueria. We said yes and here we are a couple of weeks out from that.”
Bader has been fighting in the UFC since 2008, amassing a 22-5 record and a perennial slot among the top 10 in his division. But a shot at the light heavyweight championship has eluded him. He has gotten close before, at one point winning five fights in a row before suffering a KO loss to Anthony “Rumble” Johnson.
Although he was discouraged, Bader thinks getting passed over may have been a blessing in disguise. Because he doesn’t have to worry about putting on a performance to get the attention of UFC matchmakers, Bader can focus on experimenting a bit with his technique.
“I’m done thinking about that kind of stuff,” Bader said. “I’m going out there to fight the fight, and it allows me to kind of open up out there, take more risks and I can go out there and be free and open up, kind of fight for fun really.”
However, recent events in and outside the octagon have caused the biggest shake-up in the light heavyweight division since Chuck Liddell lost the title to Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in 2007.
On the night of April 26, 2015, long-time former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones was involved in a felony hit-and-run accident which left a woman with a broken arm. After Jones was stripped, the UFC announced a new fight for the vacant title between top contenders Daniel Cormier and Anthony Johnson at UFC 187.
Cormier went on to weather an early offensive storm by the heavy-handed Johnson and secured a third round submission to become the new UFC light heavyweight champion.
Cormier defended the title against Gustafsson, and now is on course to defend the belt in a second fight against Johnson, who is coming into this fight after posting three straight knockout wins.
However, the window has not closed for Bader to pursue his dream of winning a UFC title; all the top contenders ahead of him find themselves vulnerable.
Jones has been suspended from competition by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) for a year following a failed pre-fight PED drug test for UFC 200.
Gustafsson has suffered losses to both Cormier and Johnson, and has already had two title fights.
Glover Teixeira just suffered a first round KO loss to Johnson in August. Should Bader win his fight with Nogueira, he may have the strongest case for a shot at the Cormier-Johnson winner.
Bader believes he matches up well against the current champ.
“I want to fight Cormier, that’s been a fight I‘ve been trying to get forever,” he said. “I can go in there and take him down. I can threaten him in ways he hasn’t been threatened. I don’t think he’s fought a wrestler like me.”
Before Bader was a mixed martial artist, he was a standout wrestler at Arizona State from 2002-2006, where he was a two-time All-American and earned three Pac-10 titles. He trained with future UFC stars Cain Velasquez, CB Dolloway and Aaron Simpson, and credits his time as a Sun Devil with providing him the foundation for his career.
“It was everything really,” he said. “I wouldn’t be fighting if I didn’t do that, we had a great group of guys, a lot of them went on to become successful in the UFC and MMA in their own right.”
Ortiz recruited Bader to wrestle when Ortiz was hired to coach the Sun Devils wrestling program in 2001. He said when he first met Bader, who stands at 6-foot-2 and fights at 205 pounds, he knew had the physical tools needed to succeed.
“You could see the kid’s a stud,” said Ortiz. “He had the physique for that, plus he played football so I know he can tackle. So I looked at those things, and I knew that he would do well for Arizona State.”
But Bader doesn’t just use his brawn to get by, he also employs strategies that play to his strengths as a fighter and help him stay out of danger.
“The biggest thing that helps is how he approaches the game,” Ortiz said. “Before, he was just fighting like he was on the street. What I see different is his approach to fighting is a lot smarter. The longevity is going to go to the smarter fighter.”
Ortiz singled out his fight against former UFC fighter Phil Davis as an example of his transition to fighting smarter.
“I think it showed his smarts in not getting into a slugfest with him,” Ortiz said. “I think that fight can help you see where his transition became smart, and he started fighting smart instead of street fighting.”
Working hard and smart have been major keys for Bader achieving the high levels of success he has reached. Now, there’s one fight standing between him and a shot at gold. Should he win, Bader believes his consistency justifies a title shot.
“I’ve lost one fight in the last three years, get some new blood in there,” he said. “I’ve had a few hiccups here and there. But overall I’ve been consistent, and I want that shot.”