Ryan Bader (right) says Quinton Jackson’s popularity in Japan won’t be a factor in their fight. | Photo: Sherdog.com
Ryan Bader was 18 years old when Quinton “Rampage” Jackson made his Pride Fighting Championships debut against Kazushi Sakuraba at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, on July 29, 2001.
At that time, Bader was still a few years away from a decorated wrestling career at Arizona State University, where he would become a three-time Pac-10 champion and two-time All-American. While Jackson would lose to Sakuraba that night, the Memphis native would go on to become a beloved personality in Japan as he continued to fight for Pride over the next five years.
Bader will lock horns with Jackson in the UFC 144 co-main event on Feb. 25, in the very same arena where Jackson’s star began to take shape. It figures to be a warm reception for the former UFC light heavyweight champion, who beat the likes of Kevin Randleman, Chuck Liddell, Ricardo Arona, and Murilo Rua during his memorable tenure with the now-defunct promotion.
Bader, meanwhile, rose to prominence by winning Season 8 of “The Ultimate Fighter.” The eight-time UFC veteran might not resonate in the minds of the Japanese faithful nearly as much as Jackson, but the 28-year-old isn’t worried about facing a hostile environment on fight night.
“It's a big fight. I don't feel like I'm stepping into his backyard. He's fought over there a lot but we're both traveling over there,” Bader said during a recent UFC conference call. “We're both gonna be in the Octagon. His fans and who he's beat, they're not gonna be in there with him. I relish that underdog role, and I trained my butt off, so I'm ready to go.”
“Darth” quickly established himself as one of the UFC’s top 205-pound talents, beginning his Octagon career with a five-fight tear that included notable victories over Keith Jardine and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. The Power MMA representative hit a speed bump in the first half of 2011, however, falling to Jon Jones and Tito Ortiz in consecutive outings.
Bader is not alone in losing to Jones, as the 24-year-old light heavyweight champion has since run roughshod over everyone in his path, including Jackson. It was the loss to Ortiz -- a bout in which Bader was a heavy favorite -- that caused the Arizonan to make some major changes in his approach.
“You've got to take something and do something good with your losses,” he said. “After you lose your first fight, it’s not necessarily something where you need to freak out and change everything, but losing two in a row I had to go back to the drawing board and look at what I was doing. We made some changes as a team. We got new head coach... It was nice having someone else come in and running your training camps instead of having to do it yourself. So now I just show up for training and everything is there, what I’m supposed to do.”
The new coach to which Bader refers is Tom Vaughn, who is the co-owner of FIT-NHB in Albuquerque, N.M., along with his wife, Arlene. Vaughn now splits time between Arizona and New Mexico to fulfill his expanded coaching duties.
The change appeared to pay off for Bader in the form of a first-round knockout of Jason Brilz at UFC 139 last November. Without the added burden of running his own camp, Bader was able to simply focus on fighting. He expects to reap similar benefits when he steps into the Octagon against Jackson.
“I felt great going into my last fight, and I went out there aggressive,” Bader said. “Some people fight not to lose but that gets them away from what got them there. I felt confident in my last fight and I take that into this fight. I felt I progressed as much in four months as I did in four years.”