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Can Bader stake claim among UFC's elite?

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

Ryan Bader sighs audibly. For probably the 101st time in the past month, he's asked a question bout Jon Jones, the Ultimate Fighting Championship's highly regarded light heavyweight prospect.

Being compared to Jones is no bad thing. Jones is one of the most physically gifted fighters in the world and has quickly moved to the precipice of championship contention. However, it seems some might prefer a coronation rather than making Jones fight his way to the championship.

There has been no such groundswell of public support for Bader, the light heavyweight winner of Season 8 of "The Ultimate Fighter" and the owner of an impressive 11-0 mark. Despite his far less flashy style, the 27-year-old Bader is no less of a prospect than Jones. He'll get a chance to prove that on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 119, in which he'll meet veteran Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Bader is more of a blue-collar grunt, but he's matched Jones step for step along the way. Jones walked through veteran Brandon Vera in March to cement his status as a rising star. On Saturday, Bader will get his opportunity.

"I get asked about Jon Jones a lot," Bader said. "He's a tough, tough fighter and he's very athletic and exciting. I want to get to the title, and to get there you have to beat the top guys, whether it's [Quinton] 'Rampage' [Jackson], [Lyoto] Machida, Jon Jones, Little Nog [Nogueira], whoever. They're top guys for a reason."

The UFC's plan – write it in pencil, since things in mixed martial arts can change in an instant – is for the Bader-Nogueira winner to fight Jones. So Bader might get his chance at "The Chosen One" soon enough.

And while Jones would likely be a heavy favorite, Bader is hardly deterred. Part of the reason he's gotten to where he has is because of his tenacity. Bader was Nevada's prep football defensive player of the year in 2000, a guy who would hit anything that moved.

When he began his MMA career, Bader was hardly a spit-and-polished fighter. But he was incredibly strong, had great wrestling and, perhaps most of all, had an indomitable spirit. It was impossible to tell Bader he couldn't do something.

Early on, it was his brute strength that set him apart.

"We brought him onto campus on a recruiting trip, and I remember taking all the guys out and playing a soccer game," UFC middleweight Aaron Simpson, a Bader teammate and an assistant coach for the Arizona State wrestling team when Bader was there, told UFC.com. "This 18-year-old kid took his shirt off and I was like, 'Holy crap.' He looked like a grown man."

Power has been the hallmark of Bader's career, from the time he began to wrestle through his rise in the UFC's deep and talented light heavyweight division. There are guys who are technically more proficient. There are guys who are faster and more athletic. None of them, however, are tougher or more tenacious than Bader.

"Ryan Bader is mean," Simpson said.

He's proven that in fight after fight. But he's also proven that it's not right to consider him a one-dimensional wrestler anymore. He's coming off back-to-back wins over jiu-jitsu black belt Eric Schafer and veteran Keith Jardine, and doesn't have the holes in his game which were so apparent earlier.

He's relentlessly pushed himself in the gym and has gotten the shot at Nogueira and the opportunity to move within sight of a title shot by going out and taking care of his business.

"In wrestling, you're just so ingrained into working hard and going through the grind of drilling, every day and every day," Bader said. "You go from September-October through March and if you're one of the guys at a national level, you go all year. And it's just, 'Push, push, push.' Wrestlers develop a mentality that I think they'll do anything to get better, and that's kind of how I've been. I've wanted to get into the cage and think I haven't done enough to prepare for the fight."

He has much respect for Nogueira, a highly regarded veteran who starred in the PRIDE Fighting Championship. Bader was the pet project of Nogueira's twin brother, Antonio Rodrigo, on TUF 8. Bader said Antonio Rodrigo helped him immensely to improve.

"One of the good things about being on the show is the incredible opportunity to learn from some of the best fighters in the world," Bader said. "You'd be a fool not to take advantage of that."

Saturday will, in a way, be like graduation day for Bader. If he can get past the brother of his one-time coach, he'll be near the light heavyweight summit. The path to the championship will be clear. And he'll have advanced from prospect to legitimate contender.

If Bader gets past Rogerio Nogueira, he'll move alongside Jones as the division's most promising contender. Let the comparisons begin.

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