If there were ever a blueprint for UFC success, winning "The Ultimate Fighter" would seem like it should be a part of it.
A fast-paced reality competition featuring some of the most promising fighters in the world battling for a UFC contract under the tutelage of some of the sport’s top stars, TUF is watched by millions and should ostensibly set each season’s winner up for a bright future in the organization.
But after crowning 22 champions in 15 seasons, "The Ultimate Fighter" has hardly emerged as a fast track to future greatness — which is something of a credit to the competitiveness of UFC as a whole — and many past winners have struggled to build off the show’s momentum, finding their TUF title to be their crowning achievement in UFC.
Ryan Bader is out to prove he won’t go down as one of those fighters.
A TUF Season 8 champ, Bader has seen his share of ups and downs during the course of eight fights since winning the show in 2008. And as the former Arizona State wrestling All-American prepares to face Lyoto Machida on Saturday at UFC on FOX: Shogun vs. Vera, Bader knows his reputation and almost two years of hard work to restore it are on the line.
A win over Machida, the former light-heavyweight champion, would move Bader one step closer to a coveted shot at what is currently Jon Jones’ UFC title. A loss would knock him back to square one for the second time in his young career — and if that happens, there’s no telling if or when Bader will meet the lofty expectations the show placed upon him.
After all, many TUF winners don’t.
“As a TUF winner, you’re held to a certain level,” Bader said during a recent interview with FOX Sports. “You’re jumping in there with bigger fighters, and there’s pressure on you to win and for you to be successful because millions of people saw you go through the house and beat a lot of great guys to earn that.”
Certainly, there have been some TUF success stories, like Forrest Griffin, who won the debut season of the show in April 2005 and won the light-heavyweight championship from Rampage Jackson in July 2008. Griffin would later lose his title in December 2008 to TUF Season 2 winner Rashad Evans, whose only two career losses have come in title bouts — once against Machida and most recently against Jones at UFC 145 in April.
Then there’s Season 4 winner Matt Serra, who briefly held the welterweight championship in 2007 after knocking out Georges St-Pierre in one of the biggest upsets in UFC history.
But all told, there have been as many TUF champions released from UFC as there have been fighters who have gone on to be champions, a disappointing list that includes UFC expats Travis Lutter, Kendall Grove, Joe Stevenson and Efrain Escudero, though Escudero was later re-signed by UFC.
“Sure, you won a show, but you’re thrown in there with the big dogs now,” Bader said of the difficult adjustment fighters face after winning TUF. “People who want to be in this sport and want to give it their all really have to evolve. You see that with some people, and you don’t with others.”
At 15-2 overall and 6-2 in UFC competition since winning TUF, Bader isn’t exactly on the brink of being released by Dana White, but he also understands how easy it is to fall to that point. He almost did it himself just last year.
After beating Brazilian Vinicius Magalhães in the TUF finale, Bader won unanimous decisions against Carmelo Marrero and Eric Schaefer in his first two UFC fights. He then defeated two bona fide UFC stars in Keith Jardine and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.
But just as Bader began to feel as though his TUF win had finally been validated, he learned how difficult the rise to the top truly is.
In February 2011, Jones handed Bader his first UFC loss with a second-round submission at UFC 126. Then five months later Bader succumbed to a first-round guillotine choke at the hands of veteran Tito Ortiz, who hadn’t won in nearly five years before the victory at UFC 132.
“It did mess with my confidence, especially after that second loss to Tito, but it helped me tremendously,” Bader admitted. “I wasn’t fighting to my capabilities, and I had to change some things.”
Among those changes was the addition of a head coach in Tom Vaughn, as well as the hiring of a new boxing coach in Ray Stafford and a new strength and conditioning coach in Jason Kamens. With those three in place, Bader started to put together a more refined workout regimen as he prepared for fights.
As a result, Bader has gotten back to winning. He beat Jazon Brilz with a first-round knockout at UFC 139 last November, then took a unanimous decision over the former champ Jackson at UFC 144 in February. Bader is riding the momentum of those two bounce-back wins into Saturday’s fight with Machida, who has lost three of his past four fights after starting his career 16-0.
And if a three-bout winning streak, the ongoing chance to shake the “reality star” tag and a potential title shot down the line isn’t enough motivation for Bader, he has also got a new fan to win over — his 4-month-old son, Kanon.
“Becoming a father just gives me more motivation when I’m in the gym; it gave me that extra boost that I look at this not only as something fun, but it’s my job,” Bader said. “We get paid a good amount of money to do our job, and he gives me that little extra boost — that ‘Hey, I need to go out there and do everything right.’ ”
For Bader, that means focusing more than ever on the little things. He has put a renewed emphasis on maintaining a strict diet, and he’s doing more cardio than ever, including work on a new road bike during his preparation for the Machida fight.
“I want to make him proud,” Bader said, sounding less like a UFC tough guy and more like a mushy dad. “I want him to look back when he gets a little bit older and be proud of his dad. He’s going to be proud regardless, but I want to do the best things I can do and enable myself to be the best fighter I can be for him.”
Because as impressive as “My dad won TUF” sounds, “My dad is a UFC champion” sounds even better.