Ryan Bader: Why the UFC Still Needs Him at Light Heavyweight
So ahead of Super Bowl weekend, news broke that in an interview with USA Today, UFC President Dana White said the UFC wouldn’t be matching light heavyweight fighter Ryan Bader’s offer from Bellator MMA. In fact, White went so far as saying Bader was informed that he was good to go to Bellator and thought it would be a good place for him. After his last win over Rogerio Nogueira, Bader became a free agent and opted to test the waters there. Apparently, he received a nice offer from Bellator, which the UFC didn’t see fit to match. Now obviously, business is business, but I believe the UFC letting go of a top five ranked contender in Ryan Bader at this point is a calculated and strategic error.
In the last two years or so, the UFC has let go of quite a few top level contenders to Bellator in the form of Rory MacDonald, former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson, and former UFC light heavyweight Phil Davis. It seems to be a habit, that UFC is letting some of these big names go as of late, and while it might not be alarming, it is a bit concerning. For starters, let’s take a look at Bader. Bader is currently ranked No. 4 in UFC’s official light heavyweight rankings for the division. He’s won his last two fights by way of knockout over Ilir Latifi and Rogerio Nogueira. Arguably, Bader was in a very good position to compete in a title eliminator type bout for his next fight against say Alexander Gustafsson. Bader has been in those positions before, but always come up short. At UFC 126, he lost the first fight of his MMA career to then-future champ Jon Jones. At UFC on FOX 4, he lost what was labeled a title eliminator bout to former champion Lyoto Machida. More recently at UFC on FOX 18, Bader was knocked out by former title contender Anthony Johnson. Johnson is now set to fight for the light heavyweight title again next. Going into that fight with Johnson, Bader was on a five-fight winning streak and was coming off a decision win over Rashad Evans. Including his win in The Ultimate Fighter tournament finals for his season against Vinny Magalhaes, Bader is 15-5 in UFC’s light heavyweight division. He’s been a perennial top 10 contender since basically 2011 and frequently been ranked in the top five. The one thing that’s eluded Bader his entire UFC run is a shot at the gold.
Now, when I evaluate Bader’s record, I would basically consider him a very high-level gatekeeper. And that’s the type of asset you can’t overlook in the UFC roster. Perhaps Bader has always failed when he’s put in those match-ups to beat an opponent to get a shot at the title. However, the important thing is that when he loses, he builds those other fighters on their way to becoming title contenders or champions. Case in point, his losses to Jon Jones, Glover Teixeira, and Anthony Johnson effectively made Bader the top 5 gatekeeper in the way of those fighters getting a title shot.
I’m not saying Bader is lacking in his flaws. Bader’s not always the most exciting fighter to watch. He’s a wrestler that tends to favor his takedowns and his wrestling. He is heavy handed, and he has knockout power when he pulls the trigger. But, he hasn’t been able to consistently put those types of exciting finishes together on a regular basis, despite finishing his last two opponents. Another huge flaw for Bader is that he never really advocated for himself. At UFC 195 after picking up a win over a former champion in Rashad Evans, he had mic time with Joe Rogan and the perfect opportunity to call out the champion Daniel Cormier or the winner of the light heavyweight title bout for that card. He did nothing. The post-fight press conference for that event, which had hundreds of thousands of viewers, he made no challenge or claim of wanting a title shot either. Bader generally failed at going into business for himself and marketing himself to the fans and company as a title contender. Yes, he did get some good wins, but it’s still important to market yourself as a title contender as well. It’s something Raphael Assuncao doesn’t understand either. It’s basically something Bader never did, and he continually failed to do. When you have premium air time with Joe Rogan, after you were arguably already passed over for a title shot in favor of Alexander Gustafsson, why oh why would you not challenge the champion and wish your mom a happy birthday instead? That was a major failure on Bader’s part that night, and for that, at the end of the day he has no one to blame but himself. Casual fans don’t give a rat’s ass if you go on UFC Tonight or The MMA Hour and beg for your title shot or fights against big names. If you want those fights, mic time with Joe Rogan is when you should try and make that happen. Bader never did it. Who gives a flying frell about being professional and a good sport? Be a professional and a good sport by following the rules in the cage. If you want to make money and be a champion, do what you have to do to make the fans want to see it, and the UFC will listen. Again, that was Bader’s major failing as a UFC fighter.
But at the end of the day, Bader is ranked No. 4 at light heavyweight, and letting top five contenders go is I think a practice UFC should not make a habit out of. Unfortunately, that’s not the worst part of all this.
UFC’s light heavyweight division in total crisis right now. A few years ago, it was very exciting and competitive. However, now the division is growing thinner and thinner. There’s an incredible lack of young, surging prospects and potential future stars. What does it say about the division that the UFC lets their legitimate top five performer go, and in the top 10 you still have the likes of Ovince Saint Preux (now on a three-fight losing streak) at No. 6, Corey Anderson at No. 8, Shogun at No. 7, Ilir Latifi at No. 10, and Nikita Krylov is still ranked in the top 10 at No. 9 despite the fact he got finished by Misha Cirkunov. Oh and Misha Cirkunov, the undefeated 4-0 light heavyweight who recently smashed Krylov, he’s reportedly not even under UFC contract (via Bloody Elbow). If Bader leaves to Bellator, Nogueira moves back up to No. 10. I’m sorry, but that’s a division that’s in total disarray. You have your No. 4 guy going to a different promotion, and the last two guys he finished are still solidly ranked in the top 10.
Bader may not be the most exciting fighter on the planet, but he is a very good fighter and athlete. He’s effective at what he does and gets results. He’s helped build good champions and contenders for the UFC with his losses. Again, every roster needs fighters like that.
Now, I preface everything I say without fully knowing what exactly Bellator offered him, and what UFC was willing to offer him to keep him there. Perhaps if he goes to Bellator MMA, he’d receive an immediate title shot against reigning light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader. Considering Bader holds a previous win in the over Phil Davis, that’s a good business move from the standpoint of him and his camp. For MMA fans? Not so much. Their first fight was hot garbage and not at all exciting or fun to watch. But looking at it from Bader’s standpoint, if Bellator is offering him more money and perks plus a title shot against a guy you’ve beaten, many people would take that deal as well. I’m not sure what Bader and his management were looking for from the UFC. Maybe they were looking for an unrealistic pay raise. Being fair, Bader has never been a top draw or star for the company.
My whole point is that the UFC can’t afford to lose Bader because the division has a dearth of talent, especially new and young talent right now and legitimate light heavyweight fighters. Bader would’ve been the perfect comeback fight for Gustafsson, and that fight could’ve been the headliner of an FS1 or FOX card and labeled a title eliminator. I’m not sure if Bader would’ve been OK with that, but that was at least a fresh fight. If Bader leaves, the UFC has even less realistic options at light heavyweight. Once again, their No. 6 guy is on a three-fight losing streak. Not only that, Ovince Saint Preux has been looking terrible lately. Sure, Shogun has won his last two, but those were not exactly decisive decision victories over Corey Anderson and Rogerio Nogueira. Corey Anderson? He’s coming off a win, but he’s not exactly going to be a PPV draw anytime soon.
Yeah, the UFC wants guys who can draw big money and ratings. But, that’s not the be all and end all for the roster. You need some of the more meat and potato fighters such as Bader to fill up the roster and help the divisions maintain their legitimacy.
Jeffrey Harris is 411mania’s resident Jack of All Trades and has covered MMA for the site since 2008. You can shoot him an e-mail at [email protected] or hit him up on Facebook. He also co-hosts the 411 Ground & Pound Radio podcast along with Robert Winfree. You can listen to the latest episode of the podcast in the player below.