Baker beats cancer, wins fight, gets the girl

Bryan Baker has faced five fights in the last year, four while under heavy medication to battle leukemia, the last with the anticipation of proposing to his girlfriend in the cage after the bout.

No one could blame him for looking forward to a fight that gets his undivided attention. But Baker wouldn’t trade last Saturday night for anything: He took out veteran Joe Riggs, then took to one knee and proposed to Megan Vargas.

The idea of proposing on national television inside the cage came when Baker let Vargas’ sister know he was planning to pop the question, and she made the suggestion.

Bryan Baker proposed to girlfriend Megan Vargas on live TV moments after his win.
(Bellator Fighting Championships)

“He told us he was thinking of doing it,” said Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney. “He said, ‘Look, if I win, I’ve got something special I’d like to do.’ He’s battled through cancer, so I don’t think there’s anything he’d ask that I wouldn’t say yes to.”

As Baker took control of Riggs, the cameras cut to Vargas and Baker’s mother together at cageside, excited about how well he was doing. They were shown jumping up and down and screaming as the fight ended.

Baker knocked out Riggs, who once headlined a UFC pay-per-view event against Matt Hughes, with a counter left to the jaw in the second round. The win improved his record to 15-2. Vargas, who Baker has known since the seventh grade and dated for three years, walked into the cage to congratulate him.

He introduced her to the crowd at the First Council Casino Hotel in Newkirk, Okla., and to everyone watching on MTV 2, saying, “I’d like to call over my girlfriend, my beautiful girlfriend. This is my world, everybody. I love this girl so much. I have a question for her. She changed my life. She’s everything to me. I want to give her the world.”

Then Baker dropped to one knee and said, “I’ll ask, I hope and pray, will you marry me?”

Vegas responded, “Yes,” and a 13-month period in Baker’s life that began with a possible death sentence ended in the most wonderful moment of his life.

A lot of fighters who’ve felt they were going nowhere talk about mixed martial arts saving their lives. With Baker, though, it’s not a cliché.

When he looks back over the past year, he recalls a series of events he credits for being able to catch the cancer early and beat it.

In February 2010, Baker, 25, nicknamed “The Beast” because of his reputation as a hard worker in the gym, followed his trainer, veteran fighter “Wildman” Thomas Denny, from West Covina, Calif., to the high altitude of Colorado to prepare for an eight-man, three-month long Bellator middleweight tournament that began April 29.

But something felt wrong. At first he attributed it to the altitude change. As training continued, though, everyone else had adjusted, and he’d gone from being able to train all out for hours to becoming exhausted after five minutes of jumping rope.

He believes that if Denny hadn’t made the decision to move to Colorado, if he hadn’t been training at high altitude for a fight, he would not have noticed his stamina problems nearly as quickly.

He got the word in mid-April 2010 that he had Stage 3 chronic myelogenous leukemia. While 94 percent of his white blood cells were affected, it was early enough that a cure was possible.

He kept the diagnosis a secret and still participated in his first tournament fight, with Sean Loeffler, on April 29, 2010, in Kansas City.

Stamina, one of the best attributes of his fighting career, was going to be working against him. But he finished two opponents in less than three minutes, earning his way to the finals of the Bellator middleweight tournament.

“I was definitely nervous,” he said about going into the fight without proper training and also battling the effects of the medications he had to take to combat the disease.

“He knew he probably only had one round in him,” Rebney said.

That was all Baker needed. He finished Loeffler with strikes in 2:43.

Baker credits Vargas for his strength. It’s almost as if she was in the cage with him long before the night of the proposal.

“She’s been my support,” he said. “She gave me energy. She gave me the drive and motivation to continue.

The drugs were starting to work on the cancer, and a month later he faced Eric Schambari, a tough opponent who had battled him to a split decision a few years earlier in a World Extreme Cagefighting event in Las Vegas. But he still likely only had one round in him, and he finished Schambari with a triangle in 2:29.

But facing an opponent of a very different caliber, Alexander Shlemenko of Russia in the finals June 24, Baker’s lack of training was too much to overcome. Baker didn’t look himself, was crushed by a shot to the liver and finished by punches in 2:45.

It was only his second career loss, the first after being outwrestled for three rounds in 2008 in a WEC event where Baker had his opponent switched from Logan Clark to the much-tougher Chael Sonnen two weeks before the fight.

It was a few days after the loss to Shlemenko that he told Bellator officials he’d been battling leukemia all season. And although he didn’t win the tournament, he scored a much bigger win: Just before the fight, he was told the cancer was going into remission.

Three months later he was told the cancer was 99.7 percent in remission. He talked publicly for the first time about battling the disease two days before a fight with veteran Jeremy Horn, which he won via decision.

The publicity that ensued has allowed him to serve as a role model and inspiration to others battling the disease. Baker said he’s been overwhelmed by the response and has heard from people all over the world.

He’s now 100 percent cancer-free, but he’ll never fully put the ordeal behind him because he must take expensive medications for the rest of his life that likely will affect his training and stamina. He’s taking some time off, but hopes to have a busy schedule in the fall. The win over Riggs puts him in the next Bellator middleweight tournament, which starts in September.

With distractions finally at a minimum, he and Vargas can enjoy the ride.

Dave Meltzer covers mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Send Dave a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, May 11, 2011