If Ryan Bader were the sensitive type, maybe he’d go around lamenting just how unappreciated he is. This is a guy who took his first pro fight months after he started training, who joined the UFC through The Ultimate Fighter just a year after that debut, who was fighting world-ranked opponents within two years of joining the promotion. During the time since, the former All-America wrestler at Arizona State mostly has been a winner and a contender, yet somehow, he is seen as a disappointment, an underachiever.
Glance at the most recent UFC light-heavyweight rankings and you won’t find his name. You’ll see Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, who he beat a couple of years ago and who has fought only one time since the start of 2012. You’ll see Chael Sonnen, who has all of one win in the division this decade. You’ll see Gegard Mousasi, who is admittedly a great fighter but whose lone UFC victory is against Ilir Latifi. You’ll also see Dan Henderson and Shogun Rua, who are a combined 0-4 in their last four bouts. A lot of names, a lot of room, but no place for Bader, who is 8-3 in the UFC, including victories in three of his last four.
Perhaps he is a victim of circumstance. He came up at the same time as Jon Jones, the two walking similar paths as blue-chip prospects turned title contenders until they finally met in Feb. 2011. Jones won in a rout, and instead of rebounding against the struggling veteran Tito Ortiz, Bader became a historical footnote when Ortiz choked him out, his only win in a nine-fight nightmare streak. Since then, he’s mostly been the odd man out in the picture, even when he later rebounded to beat Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.
Now hours away from facing No. 2 contender Glover Teixeira at UFC Fight Night on Wednesday, Bader has the opportunity to win back some of the non-believers. The setting is inarguably in his opponent’s favor, to the point where he’s had multiple people ask him why he even accepted the fight. Teixeira is not only riding a brilliant 19-fight win streak, he will be fighting in front of his home state fans in Minas Gerais, Brazil (the event takes place in Belo Horizonte, just over a three-hour drive from where he grew up in Sobralia). The betting line sees Teixeira as a heavy favorite.
“I love it,” Bader told FOX Sports from Brazil earlier in the week. “I love proving people wrong. For me, playing the underdog role is great. I did the same with Rampage when I went out there and beat him. I’m going to do the same thing now. I love when people overlook me and count me out. And he has pressure on him as far as he’ll get the next title shot. So for me there’s no pressure. I get to go out and get the win. It frees me up with my fighting style to just do my thing and don’t worry about anything else.”
Yet that can’t be completely true. There is always something at stake, there is always the pressure to perform; it’s just a matter of degrees.
“Beating him with all the hype he has now, that moves me towards my ultimate goal of winning the title,” he acknowledged.
This is a fight that has been brewing for months. The two had been scheduled to pair off in May when a March knee injury sidelined Bader. While grappling, Bader tore his MCL and was forced to wear a brace for weeks while it repaired itself. He attempted to spend that time wisely, concentrating on his boxing technique.
That’s one of many improvements he hopes to showcase Wednesday. Over time, Bader has worked to transform his body from muscle-bound to lean, hoping to make his striking more relaxed and fluid. He’s also increased his conditioning, which may well factor into the scheduled five-round main event against one of the sport’s busiest strikers.
Statistically, Teixeira has proven to keep a torrid pace. He averages 6.50 landed strikes per minute and 4.57 takedowns per 15 minutes, both more than double the UFC average. Yet Bader still believes there are many unanswered questions about him.
“We haven’t seen some parts of his game, like him getting taken down and fighting off his back,” he said. “We’ve seen him rocked a couple of times, and I definitely have the ability to knock him out and hit him really hard, also to take him down, put him on his back and get him tired. I think one of his weaknesses is his cardio a bit. I look to exploit that, too. Overall, he’s a good fighter but he hasn’t fought the guys I fought. He hasn’t been in there with top level guys.”
Not that he doesn’t reserve any criticism for himself. He admits the loss to Ortiz still eats at him, and he’d love to rematch Jones, saying at that time of his career he was “just winging it.” But things have changed since then, with his training centralized at Power MMA & Fitness in Gilbert, Arizona.
Bader gets it. He hasn’t lived up to the lofty expectations that may have been unfairly set so long ago, when he debuted so young, so green in the game. But now he’s in a different role. He is an underdog.
That narrative can change in an instant. If he wins, it will be victories in four of five, and he’ll be the guy who beat Teixeira on his home turf, the fighter who snapped that incredible streak.
It’s coming, he says. Everything that happened before has taken him to now; the early debut, the incredible expectations, the disappointment, the coaching changes, the injury. It’s all part of a recipe called maturity. The sport’s observers may believe that Bader has reached his ceiling, but in his mind, he’s only now beginning to understand how high it can be.
“I haven’t had a fight yet where I walked out of there thinking, ‘That’s a great fight. That’s me. That’s the fighter I am,'” he said. “I look to keep rising up and I feel I get better every training camp and I still have room to grow. I don’t think I’ve shown my full potential in the octagon yet. I’m looking to have that fight on Wednesday with Glover. “