To most, Ryan Bader was a can’t-miss prospect. He won The Ultimate Fighter 8, blasted Keith Jardine into next week and knocked off Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.
Here was this chiseled, two-time wrestling All-American from Arizona State with one-punch knockout power sitting at 12-0. The UFC had its future champion at light heavyweight or at least a long-term star.
When Bader thinks about those days now, he chuckles.
"I realize," he said, "that I didn’t know s***."
Bader said he reeled off five straight wins in the UFC from 2008 to 2010 without ever even throwing a jab. He was extremely athletic and obviously had a strong wrestling base, but his idea of a game plan was to walk across the Octagon and start winging punches.
I just thought I would go in there and punch somebody in the face as hard as I could.
"I just thought I would go in there and punch somebody in the face as hard as I could," Bader told FOX Sports.
There are two major differences with Bader 2.0: technique and strategy. He comes into Saturday’s matchup against Ovince Saint Preux in the main event of UFC Fight Night on FOX Sports 1 (10 p.m. ET) off his two most complete victories. Bader utterly dominated Anthony Perosh and Rafael Cavalcante in a pair of unanimous decisions, shutting down every single thing they wanted to do.
Bader (17-4) pushed a ridiculous pace, mixed his striking and wrestling and, frankly, made a pair of respectable fighters look like chumps. Cavalcante, the former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion, has never been flattened so completely before.
"Honestly, going out there in the beginning of my career, I had no concept of distance," Bader said. "I hadn’t thrown a jab in any [fights] before like the ‘Rampage’ fight or the Jason Brilz fight. In my last fight, I barely threw a right hand."
Bader, 31, has an understanding of strength and conditioning now that he never did before. Maybe most important has been his work with boxing coach Jose Benavidez Sr. Since Benavidez came to Power MMA in Gilbert, Ariz., you can see the results. Bader’s teammate C.B. Dollaway has also made massive leaps in his striking.
"In the past, I just never knew what a boxing coach was," Bader said.
What’s funny is that Bader could have had a completely different narrative. His first loss came to current light heavyweight champion Jon Jones by second-round submission in 2011. At the time, both were thought of as blue-chippers. Bader might have been the underdog, but not by much.
Jones, 23 years old at the time, went on to beat Mauricio "Shogun" Rua six weeks later to become the youngest champion in UFC history. If Bader could have figured out a way to slip by Jones, who knows what would have happened? Bader thinks he does.
"To be honest, I’m glad it didn’t happen then," Bader said. "I would have paid for it in the long run. I just wasn’t ready to challenge for the title or to win the title at that point."
Jon Jones defeated Ryan Bader with a unique version of the guillotine choke in 2011.
Bader thinks he might have beaten Rua like Jones did. But after that? He thinks he could have very easily lost the title in his next fight and then two or three more in a row.
"I didn’t feel like my skill set where it was supposed to be," Bader said.
Hindsight is 20/20, of course. But maybe Bader is also pretty self-aware. Either way, he realizes this is his time. Yeah, he’s only 31 and he could survive a loss to Saint Preux and work his way up the ladder again. But after falling to former champions or No. 1 contenders Jones, Tito Ortiz, Lyoto Machida and Glover Teixeira, Bader believes he has gotten all the seasoning he needs.
"He hasn’t felt that next level of fighter yet," Bader said of Saint Preux. "That’s got to be playing in his mind. For me, I have. I’ve felt the best in the world. … I know that level. He doesn’t. I want to show him that level."
This is my closest shot right now that I’m going to get for a long time. If I don’t beat him, it’ll be here we go — start all over again.
Bader is not wrong. Saint Preux has never fought anyone ranked in the top 10. His last win came against Ryan Jimmo, who had a brief stint in the top-15 rankings, but is not exactly highly regarded. Bader has fought a veritable who’s who of the division’s best fighters.
On Saturday, he’ll get a chance to prove he’s not only able to compete with the 205-pound elite — he is one of them, too.
"This is my closest shot right now that I’m going to get for a long time," Bader said. "If I don’t beat him, it’ll be here we go — start all over again."
It’s good that he’s learned a few things over the last six years.