Nearly three years after he last defended his light heavyweight title, Ryan Bader will return to the cage on Friday in a vastly different world.
True, there’s the pandemic that has affected everyone on Earth, but things are different for Bader in a more professional sense: Jon Jones is no longer a light heavyweight fighter.
From the moment that Jones destroyed Mauricio “Shogun” Rua to become the UFC light heavyweight champion, either he or arch rival Daniel Cormier stood alone as the finest 205-pounder on the planet.
But Cormier retired on Saturday after losing a heavyweight title bout to Stipe Miocic, and Jones announced on Twitter on Monday that he was vacating his championship. He said that if he competed in the future, which is no sure thing, it would only be as a heavyweight.
As a result, there is no one who assumes the mantle of the best light heavyweight. It could be Dominick Reyes, who fought a taut battle with Jones in February, only to lose a split decision. It could be Jan Blachowicz, whom the UFC wants to pit against Reyes to fill the vacant title.
Or, it could be Bader, who on Friday at Bellator 244 at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut, defends his belt against Vadim Nemkov. It will be Bader’s first light heavyweight bout since he successfully defended the belt at Bellator 186 in University Park, Pennsylvania, by stopping Linton Vassell in the second round.
He entered the Bellator heavyweight grand prix after that and fought exclusively at heavyweight since. His return to 205 comes at a pivotal point in MMA history for one of the sport’s glamor division.
“I feel like I’ve been top three in the world for a long time, but I haven’t fought 205 since 2017, so this is a chance for me to prove it again,” Bader said.
He faces a delicate challenge in moving down in weight. Roy Jones Jr., one of the greatest boxers of all-time, moved up from light heavyweight, which in boxing has a limit of 175 pounds, in 2003 to challenge John Ruiz for the heavyweight title.
Jones won, but when he tried to drop back down to light heavyweight, he was cutting muscle and wasn’t the same. He got knocked out by Antonio Tarver.
Bader is aware of that, though he thinks he’ll be able to perform well because he has been disciplined. He didn’t blow up as a heavyweight and in camp, was in the 230s for most of the way.
The majority of professional light heavyweights cut down from the 225-235-pound range, so Bader is right in line with that. When he’s a heavyweight, he simply doesn’t have to make the cut.
When he arrived in Connecticut, he was already down to 216. The discipline in his camp was important, though, because he wasn’t sure until recently in which class he’d be competing.
“I’m in this weird spot in between, kind of,” Bader said of his weight. “I could be 230, I could be 235 [and] I’ve been 243. Now, I’m going down to 205. I didn’t learn until about four weeks ago this fight would be at 205. I thought I was going to fight at heavyweight. There was some question whether Nemkov could get into the country and all that, so there was a question.
“Bellator was telling me they were going to try to get him in, and eventually, they said, ‘Light heavyweight it is.’ I was sitting there at 233 so I was pretty good. I just got real disciplined for the next four weeks and left [home] under 220. I’m in pretty good position.”
Bader hasn’t been a big heavyweight. When he entered the grand prix, he felt he needed to bulk up, but he was astute enough to listen to his body.
He was better when he was lighter, so after his first bout in the tournament against Matt Mitrione, he decided to focus on being leaner.
“I feel more agile and fast when I’m not carrying that extra muscle,” Bader said. “When I fought Fedor [Emelianenko], California does those same-day weight checks and I was 225. My body likes being in that range. When I’m a little lighter, I feel faster and I feel better. I thought I needed to be big, but I learned that I’m better off being quicker and more agile, because I still have strength.”
Bader understands the significance of the fight. Being able to defend a belt in two weight classes is a remarkable achievement that’s rarely been done in MMA.
And if he looks good enough, he’ll make a case for himself as the best 205-pounder in the world.
He’s only lost three fights, to Jones in 2011, Glover Teixeira in 2013 and Anthony Johnson in 2016, that weren’t to a former UFC champion (Jones won the title 43 days after finishing Bader). His other two losses, to Tito Ortiz and Lyoto Machida, were to former UFC champs.
He’s got the résumé to at least put him in the conversation.
“I can’t control what people say or what they think, but I feel like I should be right there in that conversation [as the world’s best light heavyweight],” Bader said. “I’ve learned from my time in this sport that you only worry about the things you can control. I can control my performance and how I fight. I hope that I show that I deserve to be in that conversation, and I believe I will, but all I can do is give my best effort and then it’s in other people’s hands.”
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