A cancer survivor, Brian Baker will enter another middleweight tournament at Bellator 50. | Photo: Keith Mills
Bryan Baker has overcome a lot in the past year.
Diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia in April 2010, Baker has since battled back to 100 percent health. With the cancer in remission, the 25-year-old has his sights set on ascending to the top of the Bellator Fighting Championships 185-pound division.
That journey begins at Bellator 50, when Baker takes on Jared Hess in the first round of the promotion’s Season 5 middleweight tournament on Saturday at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla. The draw includes three other bouts: Alexander Shlemenko vs. Zelg Galesic, Brian Rogers vs. Victor O’Donnell and Vitor Vianna vs. Sam Alvey. The tournament will be televised on MTV2 and contested over the course of three events, with the winner getting $100,000 and a shot at current titleholder Hector Lombard.
“I’m excited for it,” Baker tells Sherdog.com. “My hopes and dreams are that me and Shlemenko can meet back up in the finals so that I can redo round one. I want to get back to the finals and get to prove that I should have won the first tournament [matchup between us].”
That Baker was able to advance to championship of Bellator’s Season 2 middleweight tournament was nothing short of miraculous, considering the California native was nowhere near full strength. Only close friends and family were aware of Baker’s condition, as he fought to improbable victories against Sean Loeffler at Bellator 16 and Eric Schambari at Bellator 20. According to Baker, that was the only way to handle it.
“I didn’t want any bad vibes whatsoever. I didn’t want anybody telling me that I can’t and I shouldn’t. Any kind of negativity had to get thrown out. If I did lose at the moment, I didn’t want it to be a sad story or an excuse,” he says.
Shlemenko ended Baker’s run with a technical knockout at 2:45 of the opening round at Bellator 23. Prior to the bout, Baker admits he got caught up in the moment: his cancer was in remission, his family was in attendance and his strife was about to become known to more than his inner circle. As a clip aired on the big screen at Fourth Street Live in Louisville, Ky., Baker burst into tears.
“It just hit me. I was so thankful with where my life was and how God was taking care of me even though I was going through hard times,” he says. “I had already won in so many ways -- I felt accomplished before I fought. I didn’t have a fighter mentality inside of me at the moment.”
Though Baker eventually wants to avenge his loss to Shlemenko, he is not overlooking his first-round opponent. Hess suffered a gruesomely dislocated left knee after a flying knee from Shlemenko caused him to fall awkwardly in their match at Bellator 20. Baker, who fought Schambari that same night, saw it firsthand.
“It wasn’t nice whatsoever,” he says.
Following nearly a year-long hiatus, Hess returned and qualified for the middleweight tournament with a submission victory over Chris Bell in April. That he was able to come back from such a devastating injury tells Baker all he needs to know.
“It’s gonna be a great fight for the fans ... to show and prove where our heart and passion is at. He has a big heart; I have a big heart. This will be a clash of our hearts,” Baker says.
Since the Shlemenko loss, life has only gotten better for Baker. He earned what he calls the signature victory of his career by taking a unanimous decision over the experienced Jeremy Horn at Bellator 30. Following his next win over UFC veteran Joe Riggs at Bellator 43, Baker received something even more special when he proposed to his girlfriend in the center of the cage. She said yes but not before her boyfriend developed a serious case of the pre-proposal jitters.
“Oh man, right when they handed me the mic, I was never as nervous in a fight as at that moment,” Baker says. “I didn’t rehearse what I was gonna say or anything. I was on cloud nine.”
With each appearance in the cage, Baker seems to achieve something new, whether it is fighting through a disease, toppling a legend or finding a life partner. However, there is still more for the former WEC competitor to accomplish. He would like to have another shot at Chael Sonnen, the outspoken star who took middleweight king Anderson Silva to the brink of defeat at UFC 117. Sonnen is responsible for Baker’s only other blemish, a unanimous decision at WEC 33, but that was just barely a year into his career.
“I’ve come so far since that fight. I believe I’d be a good matchup for him,” Baker says. “I lasted all three rounds with him. He didn’t do much damage to me. I got cut, but it was just from one elbow, and I walked out of the fight fine, feeling fine.”
Baker says he owes his much of his success to Thomas Denny, a 47-fight veteran who runs Premiere Fitness MMA in Centennial, Colo. Denny has been with Baker through both good times and bad. Good, however, often seems to prevail.
“I wouldn’t have believed in myself close to what I believe in myself now without Thomas,” Baker says. “We’ve been side by side as [brothers]. Together, we make miracles happen.”
As a cancer survivor, one of those miracles is evident each time Baker steps into the cage.