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When Ryan Bader gets into the Octagon on Saturday night, he'll see the familiar face of former UFC light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz.
If the past is any indication, the fans at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas will be riveted to the cage because Ortiz, as much as almost any other fighter, draws attention.
Though the two have different personalities, Ortiz and Bader share a major similarity: Both men rely on a power wrestling base as the backbone of their game. In that way, Bader will be looking into the eyes of what is likely his future, in a fight that most see as the epitome of the cycle of combat sports life.
Ortiz came in some 14 years ago as a strong wrestler in a fledgling sport, beating more experienced fighters as well as those with more all-around skill. Bader, after an even more successful amateur wrestling career, entered four years ago in a far more developed sport and has largely done the same thing.
In all combat sports, there comes the day when the role of the old lion becomes to give the rub, as they say, to the new lion. That is one of two themes of this UFC 132 co-feature fight, the other being Ortiz battling to keep his UFC career from what is likely its ending without either a win or a hell of a performance going down to defeat.
The bout is third from the top of Saturday's card, but with the possibility of Ortiz's final trip into the UFC cage, the fight has become the center of attention. Ortiz (15-8-1) was asked to retire after a loss to Matt Hamill on Oct. 23 and willingly took a pay cut for one last shot. He was given Bader, a consensus top 10 in the world in his weight class.
The scenario puts Bader (12-1), in his first match since his lone career loss, a thrashing at the hands of current light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, right in the middle of a spotlight Ortiz's larger-than-life aura as created.
"It was an interesting fight, he's coming off losses and it's not going to move me up the ladder, but he's a huge name and people will tune in to see him fight," said Bader. "Myself as a fighter and a fan of MMA, I couldn't have passed up this opportunity. I always wanted to fight the legends of the sport, Tito, Randy [Couture], [Chuck] Liddell. I grew up watching Tito come from a similar wrestling background as I did. It's going to be a fun fight. It's an honor to be in the Octagon with him and hopefully get the win."
Bader is a 5-to-1 favorite, by far the most overwhelming odds of any fight on the show. For all of Ortiz's star power, one fact going into this fight hits harder than Bader's overhand right: Ortiz hasn't won since the end of 2006. He's been plagued by injuries, which he claims are behind him. But he's only fought top-level guys, and during that period has been very competitive with former champions such as Rashad Evans and Forrest Griffin, and came a split second from submitting Lyoto Machida.
But during the period in which Ortiz has gone 0-4-1, Bader has won 12 of 13, as well as three more fights during season eight of The Ultimate Fighter reality show, which aren't listed on his official record. By and large, the quality of opponents hasn't been as high as the type Ortiz has consistently faced. Skill-wise, Bader is a higher-level wrestling version of Ortiz, with better striking and one-punch knockout power Ortiz lacks. He's never had major injuries, while his opponent has gone through major back and neck surgery and suffered the punishment of a lengthy career.
But outside of that similar base, the two couldn't be more different. Ortiz, even if he loses and is no longer in UFC, is likely to remain the center of attention as a TMZ-type celebrity. He's seemingly always in the news, from Twitter controversies to relationship issues with wife Jenna Jameson, even getting local headlines in Las Vegas of late for bailing out a friend accused of putting out a hit on his son.
Bader is almost the opposite. You never hear anything from the former Arizona State wrestling standout other than he's training hard for his fights.
Bader is coming off his first career loss, which historically either makes a prospect a better fighter or cause head games from which he can't fully recover.
"It sucks," was Bader's reaction to the Jones loss. "The week after, I was really mad at myself. If I fought to my potential and went down swinging, it would be one thing. I had a great training camp but I didn't fight to my potential. Something was missing. I don't know what it was. I was thinking about it for a week, then two weeks after and I couldn't get rid of what was bothering me. I've had to use it for motivation for this fight."
"Jon Jones is good. His reach is frustrating, real frustrating. But if I had fought to my potential, it would have been a different story. I've used that for this fight. I've been training hard, everything has been hard about this camp. I think about how bad [losing] sucked, how bad I felt and not wanting to go through it again."
Bader became a star on the Arizona State wrestling team that included current UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, and remains linked with his friends from that era, coach Aaron Simpson and training partner C.B. Dollaway. The three of them, along with Mike Miller of the NBA's Miami Heat, a friend and big MMA fan, recently opened up a 25,000-square foot gym in Gilbert, Ariz. They converted an old Bally's gym into an MMA training center, with a cage, a ring and other fighting equipment. And while opening a new business can be stressful, Bader said it is secondary to his career.
"We set it up to where we're not dealing with it day-to-day," he said. "We have a really good general manger. Our manager runs the financing and money coming it. It was busy getting it opened but we don't do the day-to-day stuff. We focus on our careers and our training. There are things that come with owning the business, but our career comes first. It's been easy so far."
Bader noted he's had a lot going for him this camp, between the motivation coming off the Jones loss, and because Simpson is fighting on the same show, in a prelim bout against Brad Tavares. They pick each other up when one is dragging in training and make sure that in his role as a former coach, Simpson pushes him to do extra work.
Simpson is roughly the same age as Ortiz and is a reminder that while people tell him daily that Ortiz is old and this will be an easy fight, he knows first-hand that if Ortiz is healthy, which Ortiz claims he is, he isn't too old to be a problem.
"I'm training for the best Tito Ortiz there's ever been," he said. "It [expletive] me off. People will say to me you don't need to train, you've got it in the bag. He's a competitive guy. He's been in all those fights [when Ortiz gets into the Octagon, it will be his 24th UFC fight, tying a record held by Matt Hughes and the now-retired Couture]. His back is against the wall and he's trying to take me out. He's not going to roll over for me, or for anyone. I don't think this is an easy fight at all."