When Ultimate Fighter 8 winner Ryan Bader takes his first trip back into the octagon since winning the reality show competition, the situation will take him back about three years.
Bader's trip to Nashville for the UFC's first card in Tennessee on Wednesday harkens back to his days wrestling at Arizona State University, when he and his most successful teammates were preparing for the NCAA wrestling tournament.
Bader, a three-time Pac-10 champion and two-time All-American wrestler, is one of four fighters from the Arizona Combat Sports camp appearing on the live special on Spike TV. Bader will face Carmello Marrero, best known for outwrestling heavyweight contender Cheick Kongo to a decision win in 2006.
Teammate Carlos Condit, coming over from World Extreme Cagefighting – where he was the last welterweight champion – debuts in UFC against Martin Kampmann, cutting down from middleweight, in the main event.
Aaron Simpson, an assistant coach at Arizona State when Bader was there and a wrestler with international credentials, debuts against WEC transplant Tim McKenzie. A fourth teammate, Steve Steinbeiss, also debuts on the UFC stage in a prelim fight against Ryan Jensen.
The team atmosphere heading into Wednesday's card rekindles the vibe from his college wrestling days.
"It's nice to go there and feel like you're part of a team," said the 25-year-old Bader, whose camp also included roommate and college teammate C.B. Dollaway, who fights Tom Lawlor at UFC 100 on July 11. "If you aren't motivated, you have three or four other guys in the room going through the same thing and you see them training as hard or harder."
Marrero makes an interesting first big-stage opponent for Bader, who knocked out Vinny Magalhaes in 2:18 on Dec. 13 in Las Vegas to win the TUF 8 light heavyweight tournament. Marrero (10-2 with one no-contest), who trains with the American Top Team, decisioned Steinbeiss in his most recent fight on Nov. 5 on a WEC show in Sunrise, Fla.
"He's a wrestler and a great athlete, but I think I'm a little better athlete," Bader said. "I saw him in WEC when he fought Steinbeiss. He's a step up in competition, and Steinbeiss has helped me on this. It's two wrestlers, so it should be an exciting and fast-paced fight."
Bader said this fight differs from his last match with Magalhaes, a world-class jujitsu practitioner.
"In that fight, the game plan was not to go to the ground," he said. "In this fight, there is no game plan. Wherever the fight goes is fine."
He noted his stand-up has improved in the past three-plus months, and that the previous fight gave him confidence that he doesn't have to take his opponent down.
But it's a shot back at the big time for Marrero, 28. After beating Kongo, the Philadelphia native lost by submission against Gabriel Gonzaga. He then dropped to light heavyweight, lost to Wilson Gouveia, and was cut from the company. He worked his way back with four wins outside the UFC.
Bader looks to break something of a drought for the reality show that launched the career of stars such as light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans, former champion Forrest Griffin and the United Kingdom's Michael Bisping. It's really been a few years since the show has produced a genuine championship contender.
"The pluses of the show was getting so many fights in a short period of time; you get a lot of ring experience," said Bader (9-0). "Another big plus was getting coaching from Nogueira, Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida. I made some great contacts and I still stay in touch with them.
"The negative is the boredom of it all. There's no TV, no radio, no books or magazines. After you've told everyone your best stories three times, there's not a lot to do. By four or five weeks, you just can't wait to get out of there. But I'd do it again if I had the choice."
The season was best remembered for some gross pranks, but Bader said he wasn't bothered by them and felt it wasn't much different than being on a wrestling team – though he admitted being tricked into eating the fruit laced with urine was something different. He said the pranks broke up the monotony of all the down time in the house, and that there was an agreement not to cross a certain line.
It was also a weird time for him, as Arizona State – probably the strongest wrestling program in the West – canceled the sport for budgetary reasons just as he was going into the TUF house. Bader, who graduated in 2006, was still involved with the program. While he had no connection to the outside world, a big fight to try and save the program went down.
The program was saved by an extensive fund-raising campaign – though the caveat is that money must be raised to fund it every year now.
Bader remains in close contact with the wrestling team. Perhaps the most talked-about story of last week's NCAA tournament was Sun Devils wrestler Anthony Robles, born with no right leg, placing fourth in the 125-pound weight class.
"I train there (with ASU wrestlers) as often as I can," Bader said. "If I didn't have the fight coming up, I probably would have gone to the tournament. If you're ever out there feeling sorry for yourself, when you see (Robles), it gets you motivated."
Bader noted that there is a mountain that all the ASU wrestlers run, and Robles goes out there, on crutches, and runs up the mountain just like everyone else. Robles garnered national publicity as a prep wrestler, but there were a lot of questions about whether he could be successful at the collegiate level.
Arizona State has also likely produced more UFC fighters than any other school. When Bader was in college, the top of the order was Dollaway at 184, himself at 197, and Cain Velasquez as a heavyweight – all of whom earned All-American status. Simpson, who placed in the U.S. Olympic team trials in 2000 and 2004, was an assistant coach. Kyle Kingsbury played on the football team at the same time.
In addition, three of the sports' legends were on the wrestling team in the '80s: Dan Severn, Don Frye and Dan Henderson.
"I don't know if it's a style or why," Bader said about so many being able to make the successful transition. "A lot of wrestlers can be successful at this sport, but there are Division I national champions who don't make it. A lot of us came up together. A week after nationals, Cain went down to Mexico for his first fight, although his opponent canceled out. We (Bader and Dollaway) got into it later, and Simpson came after us."