It’s not easy being a mixed martial arts fighter, and it’s certainly not easy making it to 12-0 while swimming for nearly half your career in the treacherous waters of the UFC’s light heavyweight division. But through his natural gifts, hard work, and a fighter’s instincts, Ryan Bader has made it look that way.
Yet even the most prodigious of talents will have that moment in a fight when he wonders if he’s truly on that night, if he’s going to be able to keep that winning streak going. Bader’s moment came against his toughest foe to date, Keith Jardine, back at UFC 110 in February.
“For some reason I couldn’t get my takedown off and it felt real slippery in there,” said Bader of the early stages of his bout against Jardine in Sydney, Australia. “The first round went fine, I won the first round. The second round I kinda got in a weird little zone where I was waiting for my shot to go, and in the third round I was kinda doing the same and then I was like ‘all right, this is a pretty close fight, I’ve got to get this going and really put some combos together on my feet. Now it’s time to see how your conditioning really is and push the pace and win this fight.’”
It was the mental attitude of a fighter, one that wasn’t going to let a close fight slip away. Sure, he had turned back jiu-jitsu aces like Vinny Magalhaes and Red Schafer, and fellow wrestlers like Carmelo Marrero, but now he was in against a seasoned contender who had the kind of firepower that knocked out Forrest Griffin, and instead of going into a defensive mode and chalking up a three round decision loss to experience, Bader turned up the heat.
Seconds later, he knocked Jardine out to earn his 12th pro win in as many tries.
“I was always confident through that fight,” he said. “I knew it was close, but I knew at the last part I was gonna throw some combos and catch him, or take him down and end up ground and pounding him.”
That’s the difference between a prospect with raw talent and a contender whose title aspirations are legit, yet Bader humbly makes it clear that it’s only been in his last couple fights that the former Arizona State wrestling standout truly felt comfortable in an MMA fight and able to make the kind of adjustments he made to win the Jardine fight.
“Honestly, about two fights ago, I really started to feel comfortable in the Octagon,” he said. “Before, I kinda had blinders on and I got that adrenaline going to start swinging for the fences and trying to end it as soon as possible. But now I feel more comfortable, I put more time in the gym sparring, and I’ve relaxed more and it’s gonna make me a way better fighter. Whereas before, if I’m out there and I get hit or something like that, my wrestling instinct would kinda take over. But now I feel like I’m becoming more of a mixed martial artist.”
Bader’s not alone in making such transitions. Many of his wrestling peers, once they cross over to MMA and get the green light to start throwing punches, do just that, and they do it with reckless abandon. Then they get hit and they either freeze or go back to wrestling exclusively until they ride out a decision win. Yet Bader has now reached the point where his instincts are MMA-based as well, so a leg kick could be greeted with a counter right hand, or a takedown attempt could be stuffed and used as the basis for a striking assault instead of a return takedown attempt. And as far as the intangibles go, well, he’s got that covered as well.
“I have an ability to find a way to win that’s been ingrained in me with wrestling and football,” he said. “I’ll do anything to get that win.”
Even if that includes fighting a buddy. So when it was announced that Bader would be facing Antonio Rogerio Nogueira this weekend in the UFC 119 co-main event, many wondered if it would be an issue for the Arizonan, considering that Nogueira’s brother, “Minotauro”, had coached Bader on season eight of The Ultimate Fighter. It isn’t.
“This is business, and in the best organization in the world, which is the UFC, you’re bound to run into people that you know and friends of friends,” said Bader. “He’s standing in my way of reaching my goal, so I gotta go out there and beat him. I fought a really good friend to get into The Ultimate Fighter house, Kyle Kingsbury. We were friends before that, we were kinda sitting there talking before the fights were announced, and sure enough, they announced us fighting. We shook hands, said see ya later, good luck, and it is what it is. I don’t have to hate somebody or be mad or all worked up to fight somebody. That’s not how I like to come into a fight, so it’s no problem whatsoever for me.”
And truth be told, his relationship with Rogerio is nothing like it is with twin brother Rodrigo.
“I met Rogerio one time when Big Nog introduced us, and that’s it,” he said. “I’m not fighting Big Nog, I’m fighting his brother. And they may look the same, but it’s business for me. It’s like any other fight.”
But it’s really not. For Bader, a win over a perennial contender like Nogueira - who was a longtime standout in Japan’s PRIDE organization before coming to the UFC and notching two victories – propels him into a crowded title picture. He knows it too, even if he wisely puts such talk far away on the backburner.
“I’ve got a one track mind right now,” he said. “All I think about is the fight with Nogueira. In MMA, you can’t think about your next fight because anything can happen. I’m just looking at and training for Nogueira. I can look past that after that.”
So for now, it’s all Nog all the time, and if you ask Bader about his opponent, you get chapter and verse on what he does well and where he can possibly be exploited on fight night.
“I think he’s one of the more well-rounded fighters in the game,” said Bader of the Brazil native. “In the wrestling department I would say he’s definitely lacking, but overall, he’s a tough, tough opponent. If you take him down you’re gonna have to be battling on the ground with him with his submissions, and he’s real slick with that. And you also have to deal with his boxing – he’s got a great boxing background, he’s a good counterpuncher, he hits hard and has good knees, and he’s just really well-rounded. You have to pick your poison with him a little bit. The things I think I can exploit are scrambling ability, my wrestling, and I think he kinda underestimates my jiu-jitsu a little bit, and if not my jiu-jitsu, my submission defense. I heard him say in an interview that it would be wise for me to stand up with him, but I feel comfortable everywhere with him. Yes, he is very good on the ground and very good at boxing, but this is MMA, small gloves, and I have some good submission defense and positioning, so I’m comfortable wherever it goes.”
Bader also has a near perfect blueprint on how to beat Nogueira from Little Nog’s most recent bout, a controversial split decision win over Jason Brilz at UFC 114 in May. And though he obviously isn’t expecting to fight the same exact fight, there were a few interesting tidbits he was able to pull from the three rounder.
“I look at that and take a few things from that fight, but I’m expecting the best Nogueira that’s ever fought to come out and fight me,” said Bader. “That’s how I’m training and that’s how I’m looking at it. But that being said, I definitely saw some things in that fight that I could definitely use, and I’m definitely gonna mix things up and keep him on his toes, not knowing where the fight’s gonna go next. And what I do have in this fight is the ability to take it where I want to fight. If I want him on the ground I can take him down, and if I want to keep it on the feet, so be it. I do have that going for me, and I thought Brilz looked great in that last fight. I thought his standup looked fine, he rocked him a few times, and I don’t think that Nogueira was getting the best of Brilz in that department. He used that low kick to set up the single leg and he was taking him down at will and he showed pretty good jiu-jitsu too. I’ve been really working on things that Nogueira has done in the past and will probably continue to do, I have great coaching around me, and I’m just ready to go.”
No wonder, because this fight may just be the first of Ryan Bader’s career as a world-class light heavyweight contender, and possibly a champion. Not that he’s looking that far ahead, another lesson from his wrestling days.
“In wrestling,” he smiles, “you’ve got to think about the Pac-10’s before worrying about Nationals.”