On Saturday night (June 24) Ryan Bader will renew acquaintances with Phil Davis when the pair meet for the Bellator light-heavyweight title at Madison Square Garden, New York. Bader, the challenger, lost to Davis in a wrestling contest in their younger days, but then gained revenge in the UFC’s Octagon in 2015.
Days from his crucial decider with Davis at Bellator 180, Bader sits down to talk to Fighters Only contributor Tony Reid.
Q: Saturday is an enormous day for you. You’re fighting for the Bellator light-heavyweight title at Madison Square Garden, the biggest stage in combat sports, on the biggest show in the company’s history. This could be career-defining. What are your thoughts and emotions right now?
Ryan Bader: I am approaching it like any other fight. I am excited about the opportunity. I’m not making it a big deal. I have said we are going to have fun with the whole process and keep it light, even in the locker room in the back before the fight. Just have fun with it. That’s when I fight my best. No pressure. It’s all just a cherry on top. Let’s go out there, get the win. Getting a belt wrapped around my waist in Madison Square Garden makes it that much sweeter.
Q: This fight is for you and your career but it goes much deeper than that. You are doing it for your family and to secure your legacy.
RB: I have won a ton of accolades in wrestling and in football, but one thing that has eluded me has been a title in mixed martial arts. I jumped around promotions before I got on The Ultimate Fighter, so I never fought for a promotion more than twice. I won The Ultimate Fighter, then I got into the UFC and I never had the opportunity to fight for a title. Now I am about to fight for a title. It is a big career goal of mine. I have an opportunity now and I have to go out there and take it. It’s huge. I want it for myself but I also want to do it for my coaching staff, my training partners, my friends and family and all the people that have put in just as much work as I have. They are going to be proud of me no matter what, but I want this. It’s an accumulation of hard work and a memento of that accumulation.
Q: You are taking on current Bellator champion Phil Davis. You two have a history, after wrestling once in college and fighting once in the UFC. Does this feel like the tiebreaker or another fight in the series?
RB: Yeah, for sure. It’s kind of like the last one and the winner gets a trophy. We are both competitive guys. We have been competing our whole lives. He beat me in wrestling and I beat him in a close fight. Now here we are fighting for a title. I like the guy but now it’s time to put it to rest. I am going to get his belt and move on.
Q: The overall card is the best Bellator has ever assembled. You said that you are looking forward to watching a number of these fights as a fan. Are you going to be sitting backstage and watching the rest of the card?
RB: That is the best feeling in the world. After the fight there is a huge weight lifted off your shoulders. All the pressure is gone. Then I will be sitting with my team in the locker room, with a belt on the chair next to me, and I will grab a beer and watch the rest of the fights. Matt Mitrione and Michael Chandler are friends of mine, so I am definitely interested in watching their fights. Every single fight on the card is a fight you want to watch. I am looking forward to seeing Aaron Pico. I am excited to see how he does. Then you have (Douglas) Lima and (Lorenz) Larkin. That will be a crazy fight. Then you’ve got Fedor (Emelianenko) and Mitrione and then (Chael) Sonnen and Wanderlei (Silva). That whole card is stacked.
Q: You recently said the game has slowed down for you. We have heard greats say that in other sports. Can you elaborate on how it has slowed down and how that has changed our game?
RB: I was a wrestler who got thrown into this game pretty quickly. I was really a wrestler not knowing what I was doing on my feet many times. You get tunnel vision. You go out there and fight off instinct. You don’t even remember the fight afterwards. It was my fight with Rashad (Evans) where I was able to see everything. Everything was open. There was no tunnel vision. It’s one of those things where I knew what he was going to do before he did it. I could see angles and whatnot. That just comes with experience. It’s from being in there and your body saying, “OK, fighting a guy in a cage is normal now.” We don’t have to get the fight or flight response thing going. It’s also just keeping your mind open and having fun with it. You can see things and you can think through things in there, instead of relying on your instincts.