Used often in everyday American English, the word “beast” can mean anything from nonhuman animal, to an adjective for someone considered savage or brutal, to the modern slang which connotes someone who is quite good at something. This menacing moniker was given to Bryan Baker by trainer Thomas Denny, his first coach and the man who founded his career, after “Wildman” saw the hunger and ferocity Baker devoted to training and fighting.
Baker, who has since left Team Wildman Vale Tudo and now represents Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts, will face France’s Karl Amoussou in the Bellator Fighting Championships Season 6 welterweight tournament final at Bellator 72 on Friday at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa, Fla.
Originally from West Covina, Calif., Baker was raised in Apple Valley, where he attended Granite Hills High School. He played football his first three years there and started on the offensive line as a freshman despite being one of the smallest and leanest linebackers on the team.
“Coach saw that I had the heart of a bear,” Baker told Sherdog.com.
He joined the wrestling team as a sophomore and began to develop a love for the sport. “I learned a lot about myself,” Baker said. “In wrestling, it’s just you in front of the crowd. It’s all you -- whatever mistake [you make] or whatever you do well.”
While he did not perform as well as he wanted that first year, Baker was sure he could improve and thrilled with the fact he had found a sport in which winning depending solely on his own efforts. He started training at High Desert Judo as a junior and went on to obtain his black belt under Sensei Gary Moore.
Baker continued in judo and wrestling throughout high school and later earned his place on the Victor Valley Junior College wrestling team. He trained with Olympic judokas and participated in tournaments around the country, taking second place at nationals. Baker’s career goal was to obtain a place on the United States Olympic Team in either judo or wrestling. He was offered a scholarship to Cal State Fullerton, but, just before the wrestling season began, he was involved in an automobile accident in which his car was crushed by a tractor trailer. He was not seriously injured, but his car was totaled and with the loss of his transportation -- Baker commuted an hour each way -- he was unable to attend practices and classes as needed and lost his scholarship.
Believing he had lost his opportunity at a career in sports, he began to work in the construction industry and became involved in an unhealthy lifestyle replete with alcohol and drugs. At some point, Baker realized he had strayed far away from his life dreams.
“God grabbed me and said, ‘What are you doing with your life?’” he said. “I knew I had fallen off the edge, and I repented.”
Around the same time, one of his friends suggested he try MMA. Although he and his friends often watched the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Baker had never considered it as a possibility for himself.
“I didn’t even have any striking,” he said.
That friend brought Baker to Denny, a longtime King of the Cage veteran and owner of Team Wildman. Baker took to the new sport with flair, making his 2007 debut a few months later. His MMA career began with a bang.
“By my fourth fight, I was already on TV,” said Baker, who won his first six bouts in less than a year. “My strategy then was throw a strong right hand to a takedown.”
Even without a striking background, he won three of those fights by technical knockout. Then, he met Chael Sonnen at WEC 33, with a shot at promotional champion Paulo Filho on the line. Sonnen handed him his first loss via unanimous decision.
“I stayed strong for the crowd; I knew I’d given it my all, but when I went back to the room, I was just in tears,” Baker said. “Coach [Denny] just gave me a hug and told me he wasn’t disappointed.”
Undaunted, Baker threw himself back into training and competition, and he won his next seven fights, including victories against “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 3 alum Rory Singer and former International Fight League champion Matt Horwich. During that time, Denny decided to move to Colorado. He encouraged his fighters to find new places to train but invited anyone who wanted to come with him. Feeling led by God, Baker told him, “If you’re going, I’m going.”
Baker made the move, leaving everything behind to follow the coach who was instrumental in his development. Shortly thereafter, Baker began to experience fatigue, weakness, pain, headaches and other symptoms. On April 19, 2010, he was diagnosed with leukemia. With 94.5 percent of his blood affected, he was only given weeks to live, but Baker never doubted he would recover.
“My faith had grown very strong, from getting out of the drugs and the wrong crowd to my success in MMA. I am in a sport where healthy living is a necessity. Even following the feeling to move to Colorado -- the high altitude forced the symptoms to show earlier than if I had stayed in California -- was a sign to me,” Baker said. “When they told me I had weeks to live, there was never a question that this could not be overcome. I just wanted to know, ‘Am I still gonna be able to fight?’”
Baker fought on -- he accepted four more fights after the diagnosis, three of which he won -- until he could no longer compete at his full potential. He completed tests and was put on the Gleevec program; his body responded to the medication right away. By then, Baker could barely make it through a warm-up, but he never stopped pushing himself. Still, he had slowed considerably.
“I was frustrated,” Baker said. “I had become the slowest on the team, but I kept pushing and testing myself, trying to get back to peak performance. I eventually began to make it through the whole workout again.”
Baker participated in Bellator’s Season 2 middleweight draw and advanced to the final. Even though he did not win that tournament, Baker had made significant progress.
“I was walking in victory,” he said. “I had proved to myself my own mental toughness.”
About a year ago, Baker was declared to be in remission and entered his second Bellator middleweight tournament. He qualified by knocking out Joe Riggs. Immediately after the victory, he proposed to his longtime girlfriend, who had been with him since before the move to Colorado. Although he was ousted in the semifinals, he felt better than he had in the previous tournament.
Not long after, Baker began to think about his future in MMA. He had already made it back to the top of his gym, and he was not feeling challenged in training. Plus, he had a new wife and a baby on the way. When fellow First Round Management fighter Travis Marx invited him to come to New Mexico to check out Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts, Baker was ready. He visited, trained for one week and realized it was where he needed to be to further his career. A few weeks later, Baker and his wife moved to Albuquerque, N.M., where he has been ever since.
“Coach [Greg Jackson] saw my talent and my potential and accepted me right away,” he said. “Instead of trying to change my fighting style, he helps me play to my strengths, and he fills in the areas that have room for improvement.”
Baker is now in the midst of his third Bellator tournament, this time as a welterweight, and he is one victory away from fighting for the title. He has been working and training nonstop, spending time with Jackson and his stable of coaches, Mike Winkeljohn, Chris Luttrell and Brandon Gibson, all of whom have helped put together each game plan. He conditions with former Marine Rob Ange and supplements his training with boxing at world-renowned Danny Romero’s Hideout.
A man who has faced and overcome trials and obstacles that have defeated many others, Baker has earned his nickname.