You learn a lot about a fighter after a defeat. You may find out even more after two losses. Luckily, Ryan Bader passed all his tests with flying colors after the lost first half of 2011 that saw him drop back-to-back bouts to future light heavyweight Jon Jones and former 205-pound boss Tito Ortiz.
He didn’t fade into the background, he didn’t hide from the bright glare of the media or from the barbs of fight fans. He took the first two defeats of his pro career for what they were – simple setbacks, made some adjustments, and when he returned to the Octagon at UFC 139, he took just 77 seconds to blast out tough Jason Brilz and return to the win column.
Sounds simple enough, but a lot went on between February and November of 2011, and to make it into 2012 as a promising 205-pounder on the verge of contendership again, he had to look back to his college days and a similar scenario.
“In wrestling, I was ranked number one as a sophomore at one point, and I ended up shuffling between the top five and top ten,” said Bader, an Arizona State University wrestling alum. “You lose some, but I got fourth that year. But my junior year, I went out and I didn’t place, I didn’t become an All-American after being ranked so high in my sophomore year, and I was kinda in a slump.”
Enter ASU’s assistant coach Aaron Simpson, a future training partner and fellow UFC fighter. Simpson sat Bader down and gave it to him straight, letting him know where he lost his way.
“You’re going out there and if you don’t have a four point lead or something, you start to do crazy stuff, and they’re scoring on you and coming back to beat you,” said Simpson. “You need to go back to what you were doing sophomore year – going out there, grinding it out, and winning by one or two points, but being smart about it and doing what you do and not freaking out if you’re not beating them by a lot of points.”
Bader listened to his coach, earning All-American status a second time in 2006. Now he looks to have a similar resurrection in mixed martial arts, where he tore out to a 13-0 record and the season eight Ultimate Fighter title before losing to Jones and Ortiz.
“I’ve been there before, so I know that I needed to get in the right frame of mind, and I have,” he said. “Going into that last fight, I put those two losses behind me, and I went out there and fought aggressively to finish the fight, and that’s how I’m gonna continue to fight.”
Changing things around in his Power MMA & Fitness gym in Arizona, as well as bringing in Carlos Condit’s original coach, Tom Vaughn, has done Bader good, but there are certain things that can’t be dealt with externally; they must come from within, and Bader passed this test by showing his grace while being constantly reminded of Ortiz’ stirring comeback win over him at UFC 132 last July.
“These days with social media – Twitter, Facebook, and all that kinda stuff – you’re always being reminded, especially that fight with Tito,” he said. “I get Tweets up to today about it, and it just reminds you and motivates you, but at the same time, you can’t take it too much to heart. You’re out there doing it and putting it all on the line, and stuff happens sometimes.”
True, but at least it’s good stuff now, as the win over Brilz propelled the 28-year old into a UFC 144 co-main event this Saturday night against former champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.
“I finally have the ability to prove myself again with a fight like this,” said Bader. “It’s a huge fight, he’s coming off a title shot, he’s beat the Who’s Who of MMA, he’s a legend of the sport, everybody knows who he is, and he’s still in the Top Five of the division. So the opportunity is there for me again to go out there and beat him and let everybody know that I do belong with the top fighters in the division. It’s a great opportunity, and I’m gonna seize it.”
And with Jackson hinting at a return to the aggressive, yet sometimes reckless, form that won him a legion of fans back in his PRIDE days in Japan, Bader sees that possibility as an opportunity to use his opponent’s aggression against him.
“He’s mentioned that a few times in different interviews that I’ve seen, and when we were out there for the press conference in Japan, he said how he might be more open, trying different stuff, and taking risks to please all the Japanese fans,” said Bader. “I hope he does because if he does that, he’s opening himself up a little bit too. So there are pros and cons to it, but there’s nothing he’s gonna do that’s gonna really surprise us. We’re training to fight our fight.”
That probably means using a controlled aggression, his underrated punching power, and his wrestling to keep Jackson off-balance, wondering where the next attack is going to come from. Defensively, Bader is probably safe from his Achilles Heel in his two losses – submissions – but among other things, Jackson has fight-changing power and the experience to get himself out of any serious jams.
“Rampage is tough,” said Bader. “He’s obviously known for his heavy hands, he comes forward, he has great head movement, and not only that, he’s got great takedown defense. You don’t see many people taking him down. He has those heavy hips, he’s a big dude, he packs a hard punch and he can take a punch. So he’s gonna want to go in there and implement his gameplan and walk you down and land those big bombs on you, and try to put you away. That’s what he’s known for – knocking people out and slamming people and all that, but that’s what we’re ready for.”
You hear that all the time from fighters, but you get the impression that Bader’s readiness is for real. He’s seen the bottom already; now it’s time to get moving back toward the top.
“2011 was an interesting year, but I’m glad it happened because I wouldn’t have changed some things if those losses didn’t happen,” he said. “That was the catalyst for great things this year. I’m gonna go out there and beat a legend of the sport and I’m gonna be a new fighter. Each fight I’m gonna get progressively better and I want to get up there in the upper echelon of the 205-pound division and stay there.”
Ryan Bader - Climbing The Mountain Again
"I finally have the ability to prove myself again with a fight like this." - Ryan Bader