Since winning "The Ultimate Fighter 8," Ryan Bader has been a staple around the top 10 of the light heavyweight division, often putting together multi-fight winning streaks and competing in main events or co-headlining bouts during his career.
Despite sitting in the enviable position of being a ranked fighter for the majority of his tenure with the UFC, Bader has still not been able to crack the code to earn a title shot or to win the 205-pound title. He’s come close to the shot on a few occasions, most notably when he took on Jon Jones as an undefeated prospect and again when facing off with Lyoto Machida in 2012.
On both occasions, Bader lost and had to go back to the end of the line to start all over again.
Now as he sits on the cusp of another three-fight winning streak with a main event fight against Ovince Saint Preux at this weekend’s UFC Fight Night on FOX Sports 1 card in Bangor, Maine, Bader knows the chance to get back into another No. 1 contender’s fight is now or never.
"I believe I can get there. It’s not just a dream that’s unrealistic," Bader told FOX Sports. "I believe I can beat anybody on any given day. I just got to beat them consecutively, be smart, and learn from my past mistakes fighting those top-three kind of guys and turn around and beat those guys where I’ve lost to in the past."
I’ve had 14 fights in the UFC now and a lot of guys are complacent, kind of just taking fights and making money and having good fights, but I’m still striving and I think I’m the best I’ve ever been
— Ryan Bader
When looking at his record the only blemish that sticks out like a sore thumb is his 2011 upset loss to former UFC light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz, who entered the fight on a five-fight winless streak at the time. Outside of that one upset, Bader’s losses have come to Jones, Machida and most recently Glover Teixeira, who went on to fight for the belt after the victory.
The rest of the fights on his record are marked as wins, but when the time comes for Bader to call it a career he doesn’t want to look back at big fights he took and lost. He doesn’t want to be a has-been or a never-was.
Bader wants to reach for the stars and his career won’t feel complete unless he gets there.
"That’s my ultimate goal to be UFC champion and I definitely want to compete for the title," Bader said. "Or at least get a chance for that title. I’m still there. I’ve had 14 fights in the UFC now and a lot of guys are complacent, kind of just taking fights and making money and having good fights, but I’m still striving and I think I’m the best I’ve ever been.
"So I’m still trying to strive for that championship, that’s in my mind the whole time."
If Bader wins on Saturday night it puts him in a very advantageous position in the division. He’s already ranked at No. 8 in the world, but three of the fighters in front of him are currently coming off losses while Daniel Cormier is locked up in his own title fight against Jones at UFC 178.
Only Rashad Evans, Alexander Gustafsson and Anthony Johnson sit at spots above Bader with wins right now, although Evans is out until early 2015 following major knee surgery. So that leaves Johnson and Gustafsson left on the list and Bader would welcome a fight with either one of them if he’s victorious on Saturday.
The way he sees it, those are the kinds of matchups that will get him back into title contention to prove he’s not just another light heavyweight going through the motions of winning a few fights, collecting some paychecks and happy with being the eighth best guy in the world.
"Those are a couple of guys in there that really interest me," Bader said about Johnson and Gustafsson. "Going in there I want to put on a dominant performance against OSP and like my last two fights I want to shut him down, I want to finish him. I don’t like to look past a tough fighter like him, but the next logical step is fighting somebody like that.
"I believe I can beat anybody in the division and I look to do that in the future. I want to go out there and beat OSP and finish him in this main event and keep that momentum rolling. I haven’t had a win streak in a little while and I want to get back to that."