Ryan Bader once felt like an anonymous face in a crowd of 500 fighters in the UFC.
He had a five-fight winning streak and appeared close to getting a title shot when he got bad news.
“I was told I’d get the next title shot, and they gave it to Alexander Gustafsson off a knockout loss,” Bader said. “At that point I was like, man, if I’m not getting it now, I’m not going to get it.”
Gustafsson lost that 2015 fight to Daniel Cormier, who went on to claim the UFC’s light-heavyweight and heavyweight titles. Bader, who moved on to the rival Bellator MMA promotion, got his title shot and now can match Cormier as a two-division champion by beating mixed martial arts legend Fedor Emelianenko on Saturday night at the Forum in the heavyweight grand prix finale.
“I wouldn’t have thought this impossible, but when I look back on my career, it’s a whole different world,” Bader (26-5) said of his move to Bellator. “If you told me I’d be fighting at heavyweight, in the finals of a grand prix and I’m fighting Fedor, I’d say, ‘No way. It sounds like a dream come true.’ It is. Here we are.”
Bader, 35 and the light-heavyweight champion, reached the final by disposing of Muhammed Lawal by first-round knockout and veteran Matt Mitrione by unanimous decision.
That the exposure has been gained humbly — in performances that have revealed the essence of Bader’s intense devotion to fight preparation — is the most rewarding part for the former three-time Pac-10 Conference wrestling champion from Arizona State.
Not boasting, Bader said, left him obscured in the UFC rankings as he struggled with the conflict of incorporating smack talk when the respectful tenets of wrestling and other combat disciplines discourage such behavior.
“We’re all pretty much wrestlers who get their work done in an unforgiving way,” Bader said. “People don’t see the hard work that’s put in, waking up at 5 a.m. with snow on the ground in the Midwest and you’ve got five pounds to cut … there’s not a ton of fanfare in that.
“We came up in that — keep your mouth shut, let your hard work do the talking, and I came into MMA like that. Back then, when I was [winning] ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ [in 2008], you didn’t see that smack talk prevailing. It wasn’t such a factor in who gets the next title shot.”
Conor McGregor changed all that, his powerful verbal barbs complementing his tremendous dedication and skill that launched a stream of imitators.
“I get that people want to tune in and see people jaw at each other, and how it’s a double-edged sword because this is the entertainment business, but that’s where the realm of mixed martial arts and WWE are different than Major League Baseball and the NFL,” Bader said. “I’m not one of those guys talking smack, because we’ve seen it catches up to you at some point.”
When Bellator president Scott Coker created the heavyweight grand prix, Bader jumped at the opportunity.
“That’s why I love doing this tournament. You enter, there’s a bunch of tough guys. You win, you move on to the finals and the winner gets the belt. It knocks off all that jockeying to get a title shot,” Bader said.
“It’s the same way I came up in wrestling. You go to nationals. It’s a 64-man bracket, and you’ve got to win your way to the finals. It’s a dream for me right now — I just need to keep my composure and fight like I know how to fight.”
Emelianenko, a Russian who went unbeaten for 27 fights until a 2010 loss and has defeated former UFC champion Frank Mir and two-division title challenger Chael Sonnen in the grand prix, praised Bader as a “smart, thinking” fighter.
“I definitely followed him. Coming up, if you wanted to see some fights on YouTube, you pulled up Fedor,” Bader said. “His tenacity, aggression and ability to get out of bad positions and bad situations — he used to be in those freak-show fights against guys who were 7 feet — he’d figure it out and get it done.
“And I’ve been watching him in this tournament because I just had a feeling he was going to make it. He’s maintained that aura around him.”
Emelianenko, 42, has said he’ll weigh retirement after this fight, whether in victory or defeat. Bader isn’t preparing for peak Emelianenko — at least not mentally.
“I’ve tried not to put him on a pedestal. I tried not to say that’s the Fedor of the early 2000s who beat everybody, to keep those thoughts away,” Bader said.
“I keep notes on my phone, certain things I can look at as I’m heading to the fight, whenever I’m feeling a little anxious. They can be motivators for me, or things on him, too — the age part, or, ‘if it goes the distance, if we’re in a crazy scramble, it’s only going to benefit me and my cardio’ — things like that. I’ve got about seven notes, and my goals as well — to be a champion.
“Those notes check me and let me know, all right, I’ve got this.”
Victory will place Bader on what he views as equal footing with Cormier, who last month vacated his light-heavyweight belt to focus on a final heavyweight fight.
“I’d love to fight him in some kind of cross-promotion. It probably won’t happen, but it would make business sense,” Bader said. “It’d be a huge fight and worthwhile: two double-champs. It’s where I believe the sport is headed.”
“I’m not taking anything away from D.C.,” Bader added. “He carries himself well, is a champion, a stud athlete, an unbelievable fighter and it’d be one hell of a fight.
“But I wouldn’t be in this sport or the position I’m in today if I didn’t believe I can beat him.”
Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix
Main event: Fedor Emelianenko (38-5) vs. Ryan Bader (26-5) for Bellator heavyweight title
Television: Paramount Network, 6 p.m.