Bellator light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader and the changing MMA landscape

Ryan Bader jumped over to Bellator from the UFC two years ago and hasn’t looked back since. (Lucas Noonan/Bellator)
Ryan Bader jumped over to Bellator from the UFC two years ago and hasn’t looked back since. (Lucas Noonan/Bellator)

LOS ANGELES — It’s a pretty good time to be Ryan Bader.

The Bellator light heavyweight champion found himself on the rooftop of Viacom’s West Coast headquarters on Wednesday, with nothing but blue skies, sunshine and the Hollywood Hills as his backdrop as the star attraction of Bellator 214’s open workouts.

On Saturday, Bader will look to become the first fighter in Bellator’s decade-long history to simultaneously hold dual weight class championships. He meets the one and only Fedor Emelianenko in the finals of the Grand Prix heavyweight tournament, a year-long affair to crown a new champion, in the main event of a Paramount Network-broadcast card at the Forum in nearby Inglewood.

Two weight-class belts, the star treatment in Hollywood and headlining against a legend of the sport in an equally legendary venue? This is beyond what Bader could have imagined when he made the decision to jump from what seemed like a safe spot in the UFC over to what was considered a distant-at-best No. 2 promotion two years ago.

“I think this has worked out pretty good, no?” Bader asked. “The people who said I was making a bad move don’t have very much to say anymore.”

He has a point. Just two years ago, the notion that a fighter would only jump from the UFC if they couldn’t hack it in the big leagues was a common and long-held perception in the mixed martial arts world. Maybe past-their-prime competitors like Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock could score one last big payday or two fighting amongst themselves in “legends” matchups, but otherwise, Bellator wasn’t known as the place for elite fighters in their primes.

“It was a risk and it was a little scary, there’s no doubt about that,” Bader told Yahoo Sports. “The UFC had been my home since I was real early in my career. I fought on small shows and then I went on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ and won and I stayed there eight years. That was all I knew. But the more I talked to [Bellator CEO] Scott Coker and the more they told me about their plans and how they wanted to treat the fighters, the more it seemed worth the risk.”

Bader signed with Bellator in 2017 on a streak of two straight wins and seven of eight. And as Bader found success in Bellator — defeating Phil Davis at Madison Square Garden to win the light heavyweight title, and earning wins over Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal and Matt Mitrione in the first two rounds of the heavyweight tourney — other top-quality talent has also begun migrating over to the fight promotion. Rory MacDonald actually made his Bellator debut a month before Bader as part of the company’s initial push to sign top talent and has gone on to win its welterweight title. Gegard Mousasi left the UFC on a five-fight win streak and has become Bellator middleweight champ. Former UFC light heavyweight champ Lyoto Machida — who beat Bader back in 2012 — recently signed on while riding a two-fight win streak.

Ryan Bader beat Matt Mitrione (L) to advance to the Bellator heavyweight grand prix final. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
Ryan Bader beat Matt Mitrione (L) to advance to the Bellator heavyweight grand prix final. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

Over in Asia, meanwhile, Singapore’s ONE Championship is on a spending spree and has in the past year acquired the services of former UFC and Bellator lightweight champ Eddie Alvarez and up-and-coming star Sage Northcutt, as well as making a contract swap for former longtime UFC flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson.

The point is, when one surveys the mixed martial arts scene as a whole in 2019, only the most obstinate of hardcore UFC fans still consider the company to be the only home of major league-level MMA. And Bader, riding high going into Saturday night’s main event, just might be the poster boy for this sea change of perceptions in the sport.

“I mean, I’m not going to go giving myself the credit for this,” Bader said. “But let me put it this way, the more I won, the more I found myself in feature fights, the more I saw that whatever Scott Coker has told me he’s going to do, he followed up and delivered. The more that became obvious, the more phone calls I’d get from guys wanting to know if they could get in.

“Then you see the guys Bellator has coming up, real legit guys who are going to be studs, and you realize they’re building something sustainable here,” Bader continued.

To that end, Bellator’s got a bumper crop of talent on its way up, a pack led by a fighter who just might be a once-in-a-generation talent in 22-year-old Aaron Pico (4-1), who is in the featherweight co-feature of Saturday night’s card against underrated Henry Corrales. Other noteworthy youngsters include Tyrell Fortune (5-0), Ed Ruth (6-1), A.J. McKee (13-0) and James Gallagher (7-1).

Those guys still have plenty of time to jostle among themselves to see who will emerge as the next generation of Bellator draws. But for now, it’s Bader’s time, and while this week has been a whirlwind, he’s taking a moment to appreciate how far he’s come along.

“I used to watch Fedor fight back when I was in college,” the former Arizona State wrestling standout said. “Now I have the honor of stepping into the cage with him and fighting him to win a heavyweight championship. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

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