In 2005 when he was a senior at Arizona State University, Ryan Bader entered the NCAA wrestling championships with the hopes of bringing home a title or at worst taking home All-American status for the second year in a row.
Bader was one match away from the finals in 2004 when he lost to eventual national champion Damion Hahn out of Minnesota so when he entered the field the next year as the No. 7 overall seed, he expected to make a serious impact in the tournament.
Following a first round win over Tyrone Byrd from Illinois, Bader was matched up against a first year newcomer out of Penn State named Phil Davis. Truth be told at the time, Bader didn’t know a thing about Davis going into their match.
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He found out quickly that Davis was going to be an extremely difficult wrestler to beat.
"I didn’t know who he was or what kind of a wrestler he was. I went in and I grabbed a couple of single legs and put his foot up in the air and I just remember how good his balance was and I couldn’t take him down off those high singles," Bader told FOX Sports looking back at the match. "He ended up beating me."
Phil puts himself in trouble a lot of times because he doesn’t really have that explosive shot. I feel like in this fight I have the better MMA wrestling and I have that power advantage, too.
— Ryan Bader
Davis won by a score of 3-1 and eliminated Bader from the tournament. Unfortunately, Bader didn’t end up placing in the consolation bracket either so he left his final year at college out of the All-American field all together.
Bader isn’t bitter about the loss to Davis in college and after the two fighters ended up in the UFC together, they even became friends. It doesn’t mean Bader doesn’t still harbor some ill will about the loss with hopes of redeeming himself this weekend at FOX UFC Fight Night from Stockholm, Sweden.
"All wrestlers are a little prideful and it’s a good way to get it back," Bader said. "It’s not straight wrestling and there’s obviously so many more things involved, but I think if I beat him in the MMA realm it’s a little notch higher."
As far as their wrestling credentials go from college, the competition between Bader and Davis isn’t close at all. Davis was a four time All-American and an NCAA champion at 197-pounds in his senior campaign. Bader reached All-American status, which is always an honor for any wrestler to receive, but he never matched Davis in terms of overall accomplishments.
While both men put away the singlet years ago, Bader and Davis are still very well known for using their wrestling inside the Octagon as well. Bader and Davis both average over three takedowns per 15 minutes inside the cage and have rarely been out matched on the ground by any opponent in the UFC.
Bader takes nothing away from Davis’ accomplishments in college or the ability to use his wrestling since transitioning to mixed martial arts, but the fact is the former Ultimate Fighter winner just believes he’s better.
"I do as far as going in and blowing through people and getting the takedown. Phil puts himself in trouble a lot of times because he doesn’t really have that explosive shot," Bader explained. "I don’t think he ever did during his wrestling career. He was a guy who got into scrambles and got a second shot kind of thing. You’ll see it a lot against guys like Glover (Teixeira) where he’ll shoot not a great shot, but he’ll do a second shot from his knees and try to grab the legs or he’ll tie you up and trip you.
"I feel like in this fight I have the better MMA wrestling and I have that power advantage, too. I have the ability to end the fight. He hasn’t been stopped in his career and I want to be the first guy to stop him and I believe I can."
The wrestling debate could go on forever but when it comes to striking inside the Octagon, Bader seems to have a much bigger advantage in this category, especially in regards to knockout power.
Bader has finished several fights by knockout or TKO and is well known for an explosive boxing style with the ability to throw either his left or right and put anybody on the roster to sleep. It’s here that Bader sees his fight with Davis in a much greater advantage in his favor.
"If you look at my record against wrestlers, I’ve been very successful. I’ve actually knocked out a lot of the high level wrestlers I’ve faced. From (Vladimir) Matyushenko to (Jason) Brilz and so I just feel comfortable wherever I want to take the fight, I can. It’s not going to be easy to take down Phil, but I believe I can. I believe I have the better standup, too," Bader said.
"A lot of times those fights do transpire on the feet because the wrestling sort of negates itself. There’s several different ways to approach this fight, but if it does stay standing I believe I have the advantage in that department as well."
Bader knows how big this fight is for him against Davis because it’s the chance to eliminate a label he’s been tagged with ever since winning season 8 of The Ultimate Fighter.
On several occasions during his career, Bader has come close to title contention, but whenever he’s been matched up against a top five opponent, he’s come up short. He fell to Jon Jones when a title shot was on the line back in 2011 and then fell by way of knockout to former light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida in 2012. Bader was possibly one punch away from taking out Glover Teixeira in 2013, but got caught instead and suffered another crushing defeat.
Now riding the wave of a three fight win streak, Bader wants to prove he’s not a fighter who almost gets to the top but never does.
"I’ve had times where I’ve been close, I’ve been fighting these top guys like Lyoto (Machida) and Glover (Teixeira) and with Glover I was that close and it didn’t happen. Machida didn’t work out. I was younger in my career and maybe it just wasn’t the time to make that push. Now I feel is the time. I’m more experienced, I know what I know now and what I need for me. This is the time and this is the fight to prove it.
"Here I am again fighting a top five guy and in the past I haven’t been able to beat those guys. Now I’m fighting Phil Davis, who is No. 5 in the world. I’m looking to be a legitimate contender and go for the title now. I’ve been given those chances in the past and I fell short. Here it is again, but now I need to turn the tide and beat Phil Davis."