5 Defining Moments: Ryan Bader

Leading up to his most recent fight against mixed martial arts icon Fedor Emelianenko at Bellator 290, Ryan Bader was ready to don the black hat if required. All eyes were on Emelianenko’s retirement fight, and Bader himself would have wanted the Russian to ride off into the sunset with a victory had circumstances permitted a different opponent.

Bader made quick work of Emelianenko with a Round 1 technical knockout, which marked the third defense of his Bellator heavyweight championship. Emelianenko was draped in an aureole of reverence for his last bout, but make no mistake, Bader is swathed with distinctions that eclipse many of his other counterparts. A professional fighter since 2007, “Darth” competed in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s light heavyweight division.

Before he even got into mixed martial arts, Bader amassed wrestling accolades as a three-time Pac-10 Conference champion and a two-time NCAA All-American. For Bader, his journey from the outset was purpose driven. He was hardwired for competition with a burning ambition to excel.

Now entrusted with the main event duties in facing 2023 Professional Fighters League heavyweight champion Renan Ferreira in the PFL “PFL vs. Bellator Champs” card on Saturday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Bader has the opportunity to etch another jewel in the crown of his storied career. With that, let us take a look at some of the moments that have come to define him:

1. Dominant Run Ushers in Future Opportunities

Bader started his professional MMA journey in March 2007 against Dave Covello at a Worldwide Fighting Championship show. He won the fight by TKO in the first round. That victory served as the springboard for a remarkable streak. The American went on to win six more fights, pushing his streak to 7-0 with six finishes. “Darth” collected signature victories over the likes of Buckley Acosta and Brad Peterson in the process. This stretch of dominant victories thrust him into the glare of the UFC spotlight as a contestant on Season 8 of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series.

2. Glimmering Success on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’

Bader set out on his path to the UFC as a contestant on “The Ultimate Fighter 8” in 2008. He would become the first light heavyweight selected by coach Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. The American impressed with three solid victories and went on to lock horns with Vinicius Magalhaes at “The Ultimate Fighter 8” Finale on Dec. 13, 2008. He outclassed his opponent without barely breaking a sweat, delivering a decisive blow with an overhand right and follow-up strikes to clock an emphatic victory at 2:18 of the first round. With this victory, Bader earned the title of “The Ultimate Fighter” and pocketed the coveted six-figure UFC contract.

3. A UFC Resume with Peaks, Valleys

Basking in the glory of his triumph on “The Ultimate Fighter,” Bader took the success and ran with it, collecting four solid victories between April 2009 and September 2010. In his first post-reality series fight, Bader defeated Carmelo Marrero via unanimous decision, scoring 30–27 on all three judges’ scorecards. Unfortunately, he tore his medial collateral ligament and posterior cruciate ligament, which kept him sidelined for a while. Following suit after the debut victory, Bader seized pivotal triumphs against Eric Schafer, Keith Jardine and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. Bader encountered a stumbling block in his winning streak in 2011, succumbing to back-to-back guillotine choke submissions against Jon Jones and Tito Ortiz. Bader found his stride once again with consecutive victories over Jason Brilz and Quinton Jackson before falling victim to a Round 2 knockout loss against Lyoto Machida. It seems safe to say that Bader has braved the battleground of the UFC, going toe-to-toe with the titans of the division while amassing a solid record of 15-5 in the organization.

4. Striking Gold

In a rematch fizzing with excitement, Bader marked his Bellator debut in a second meeting with Phil Davis, and fans felt the nerves taut like pins and needles. New York’s Madison Square Garden served as the backdrop for the encounter, as both fighters engaged in a strategic battle. Davis found success with his body and leg kicks, while Bader capitalized on his stinging jab to disrupt his opponent’s flow. Davis did display his brilliance on occasion, yet Bader’s late takedowns and defense earned him a split decision victory. The bout included admonition from referee Dan Miragliotta for inactivity, but Bader’s persistence ultimately prevailed, as he sealed the win with a late takedown and laid hands on the Bellator light heavyweight championship.

5. Conquering Other Frontiers

Bader’s name was permanently carved into the fabric of Bellator history when he dispatched the aforementioned Emelianenko a mere 35 seconds into their first clash at Bellator 214. Bader landed a crisp left hook followed by a thunderous right hand, clinching the Bellator heavyweight championship and elevating himself to the status of a double champion in the promotion. Following the victory, “Darth” humbly acknowledged the monumental achievement and his opponent’s legacy that will resonate through the ages.

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Johan Ghazali