Navigating the Unknown

By Jason Burgos May 19, 2020

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The postponement of Ryan Bader’s title fight on May 9 came as no surprise to the two-division Bellator MMA champion. However, what comes next with the promotion trying to navigate a pandemic that brought much of the globe to its knees? No one knows.

Despite stay-at-home orders, business closures and events being shuttered across the sport, Bader pushed forward in preparation for his battle with fast-rising light heavyweight contender Vadim Nemkov. At the end of March, when the pandemic seemed to peak in many places and with more than a month left before Bellator 242, there was reason to hope. By March 30, the promotion’s entire slate of May events had been postponed indefinitely.

“I was going to be prepared. I was deep into camp like I had a fight for sure,” Bader told Sherdog.com. “As it started getting closer, you’re like, ‘Maybe it can happen. [The] UFC is talking about [doing events]. Is Bellator going to keep that May 9 date?’ Then we got word, and it was kind of disappointing, obviously.”

Conducting a fight camp under federal and local restrictions has been difficult for any martial artist fortunate enough to get booked for a bout in the last three months. Bellator’s heavyweight and light heavyweight champion was no exception. While Bader admits his training during March was not optimal when compared with other camps, he was ready to fight if the promotion went through with the card.

“In a perfect world, I’d bring guys in to emulate that [opponent], and obviously [I] couldn’t do that,” he said. “A lot of the people I bring in, too, are from Brazil, but we went with what we had at the time. Optimal? No, but we would have done it, for sure.”

Not getting back into the cage for the first time since September was admittedly frustrating. However, for a fighter at the highest tier of the roster’s pay scale, a lost payday hurts just as much, even for someone who has had quite a few notable paydays over a successful 13-year career.

“I’m pretty fortunate,” Bader said. “Bellator has taken great care of me, and I’ve done smart things business-wise, but still, every payday you lose stings. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in this for the love of the sport, but at the end of the day, I’m here to get paid. It was definitely something I was looking forward to. Any time you have to pull out with an injury, any time it’s postponed, you’re definitely missing out.”

No one should expect Bader to sit home and feel sorry for himself. The 36-year-old expects many more paydays ahead, as he hopes to continue competing beyond the age of 40; and with plans for Bellator to get rolling again by the summer, he knows money-making opportunities are on the horizon. Plus, Bader understands he is also in an enviable position, as many throughout the country have felt the economic impact of stay-at-home orders.

“People have it a lot worse, losing their job and all that kind of stuff,” he says. “I can’t sit here and complain. We’re going to get these fights in, and that’s all that really matters.”

When Bader does return to the Bellator cage, he has no idea if it will be against Nemkov. With travel and visa restrictions still in place globally, there are no guarantees that the Russian contender will be allowed entry into the United States in the next few months. Bader wondered about the situation while still in camp and thinks it could open the door to a different opponent this summer.

“I don’t have a lot of confidence in [a Nemkov rebooking]. He deserves a title shot, no doubt in my mind, but if he can’t come in, let’s do a light heavyweight fight [with another opponent], and he gets the next shot when he can get in,” Bader said. “It was one of those things when we were training for Nemkov, where in pad work and drilling we would put a little extra emphasis on the last 15 minutes and [say], ‘Let’s work a little bit for this guy just in case.’”

When pondering the possibility of a replacement, Bader felt only two names made sense: former Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight titleholder Lyoto Machida and former Bellator light heavyweight champion Phil Davis. Machida—who knocked out “The Ultimate Fighter 8” winner at UFC on Fox 4 in 2012—became the clear secondary focus.

“I fought Phil Davis twice, and they’ve been boring fights,” he said. “Nobody wants to see that fight again, so I was kind of training a little bit for Machida.” Bader feels a sense of duty to the 205-pound weight class, as he has not defended the light heavyweight crown since November 2017. “I owe it to that division,” he said, “even though I’ve done everything that Bellator has asked [and] I’ve never passed on anything. They wanted me to do the grand prix, [and] they wanted me to defend the heavyweight title after that. [A return to] 205 [pounds] has to happen. It’s one of those things where it’s been too long. We owe it to that division, regardless [of] who it is, and I don’t think people would complain too much about it.”

When Bellator resumes its schedule, it seems all but certain that it will do so in a facility closed to the public. Bader pointed to his experience on “The Ultimate Fighter” as an advantage.

“I’m all for it,” he said. “It’s something different. I kind of thrive on mixing it up in different scenarios, [like] doing the heavyweight grand prix. It brings a new motivation. I’m ready to go. To go into an empty warehouse or whatever it is, it’s going to feel different. It’s just a different mindset, and I’m all for it. I liked it on ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’ All the hoopla was gone. You just go in there and fight this dude in the cage. It’s not going to bother me one bit.”

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