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When Ryan Bader burst onto the Ultimate Fighting Championship scene in 2008 by knocking out Vinny Magalhaes to win the eighth season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” big things were expected of the undefeated prospect with excellent wrestling and knockout power in his fists. The UFC saw him as a potential future top contender or champion in the prestigious light heavyweight division. Now, Bader is the No. 4 contender in the UFC’s 205-pound rankings; and with a win over Anthony Johnson in the UFC on Fox 18 main event this Saturday, he is likely to receive the next title shot against the winner of Daniel Cormier-Jon Jones 2. You would think that over seven years since his UFC start, Bader has finally risen to the level that was expected of him. Yet, it still feels like there is something missing.
On paper, Bader checks off many of the boxes you would want in an elite fighter. He has an impressive record (20-4), achieved against a high level of opposition. He has notable wins over former champions Quinton Jackson and Rashad Evans, as well as top contenders like Phil Davis and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. His losses are all to big names. It seems like the resume of an elite fighter, but that perception just isn’t there.
At the heart of the problem is that MMA is a sport of moments. Vitor Belfort, Chuck Liddell and B.J. Penn captured the public imagination during periods in which they struggled because fans remembered the spectacular moments that defined their careers. In MMA, the greatest knockouts and submissions linger so much longer than a hard-earned decision in a lackluster fight. Bader has plenty of quality wins but no defining highlights in which he pulled off a remarkable feat against an upper-echelon foe on a high-profile stage. The closest thing may be a scintillating knockout over Keith Jardine, but that came in the midst of a long losing streak for Jardine. Plus, Jardine suffered many other notable knockouts during that period.
Making matters worse for Bader is that he was a part of some very memorable moments -- it’s just that he tended to be on the losing end of them. It’s easy to argue that the four most memorable fights of his career were his four losses. He has only picked up one performance bonus in his 17 UFC fights. The only fighter with as many wins as Bader in the UFC with equal or fewer bonus awards is Yushin Okami; Jon Fitch beats them both with two. On the other hand, his opponents have received bonus awards in three of his four defeats.
This overall trend first started to take shape in 2011, when Bader faced Jon Jones at UFC 126 in an important showdown of the top up-and-coming talents in the division. Jones took apart Bader and won the UFC light heavyweight title the next month. The loss was particularly problematic: As Jones dominated the division, it was difficult to sell a Bader rematch even if he had never gotten his crack at the gold. To make matters even worse, it was easily the biggest pay-per-view event on which Bader has competed -- a 725,000-buy spectacular headlined by the Anderson Silva-Vitor Belfort fight that played a prominent role in the popularity rise of MMA in Brazil.
Things went from bad to worse for Bader when he took on Tito Ortiz at UFC 132. That was supposed to be a showcase win against the aging legend. Instead, Ortiz caught Bader with a punch and submitted him with a guillotine, providing Ortiz with the one win in his 1-7-1 UFC record after defeating Ken Shamrock in 2006. Whenever a promotion is looking to sell Ortiz’s relevance in recent years, the Bader fight is the first piece of evidence that gets brought up. That’s the wrong highlight reel to be on.
It appeared that Bader had settled in at a certain level after that, picking up wins over lesser opponents like Vladimir Matyushenko and Jason Brilz while getting knocked out by tougher opponents like Lyoto Machida and Glover Teixeira. A win over “Rampage” Jackson could have been a springboard, but the dull, conservative nature of the fight won few admirers. Then, when his prospects of becoming champion looked grim, a funny thing happened. Bader embarked on the most impressive winning streak of his UFC career.
By picking up victories over Ovince St. Preux, Davis (albeit controversially) and Evans, Bader put himself in position for a potential title shot. Unfortunately, there remains an asterisk. Five decision wins in a row have shown his quality as a fighter but haven’t done a lot to generate excitement in his fights. Thus, this fight on Fox is a crucial moment for Bader on multiple levels.
Most obviously, Bader needs a win against Johnson. With a win, he’s in good position to get the title shot he has chased for so long. Johnson is a dangerous opponent, and a win against “Rumble” would put an exclamation point on his winning streak. However, that’s only part of the equation. More than just victory, Bader also needs to deliver the sort of performance that will be remembered for years to come. That’s always an important consideration in MMA, but it’s particularly true for Bader. He has picked up major victories in the past that were quickly forgotten and did little to define him positively today. Now, he has the opportunity to main event for the third time and for the first time on Fox. If he wins in impressive fashion, it could serve him for the rest of his career.
For years, Bader has been chasing the sort of respect and credit that comes with being one of the best fighters in the world. At 32 years old, he is in the prime of his career, and the opportunities won’t keep coming in perpetuity. Against Johnson, Bader needs to do more than just attempt to get by. He needs to make fans remember his name. If he doesn’t fight with that mentality, that could end up being his legacy.