Once thought to be the future of the UFC, Ryan Bader (above) finds himself in a must-win situation entering his fight with Jason Brilz at UFC 139. (AP)
Nine months ago, Ryan Bader was the future of the UFC. He was undefeated, under 30 and taking on fellow up-and-comer Jon Jones. Bader lost the bout while Jones went on to become the UFC’s youngest champion a month later. Bader lost his next fight too, falling to Tito Ortiz, and now the 28-year-old finds himself on the UFC 139 undercard against Jason Brilz. Both fighters need a victory to avoid a three-fight losing streak.
“He’s still one of the up-and-comers,” said UFC middleweight Aaron Simpson, one of Bader’s MMA training partners and the guy who recruited and coached him as a wrestler at Arizona State. “He’s still pretty new to the sport.”
Bader, Simpson, heavyweight Cain Velasquez and middleweight C.B. Dollaway all started serious MMA training between 2006 and '07. Dollaway, Bader and Velasquez -- the 184, 197, and heavyweight wrestlers, respectively -- graduated from Arizona State in 2006. Simpson, the coach of ASU’s upperweights, helped the trio become part of the sixth-best wrestling team in the country -- and probably the scariest team to disagree with in an argument. All four (Simpson says he’s “not your typical 37-year-old”) are now fighting in the UFC.
“I don’t want to have a 9-to-5 job; I’ve been an athlete my whole life,” Bader said. “I like going into the gym and getting better every day.”
Bader’s athletic mentality is what got him into MMA, but it might also be the cause of his current losing streak. Bader admits he has a “you can never get enough” training attitude that he picked up while wrestling. According to Simpson, the light heavyweight has to be forced to take time off to let his body recover and was “run down” going into his last two fights.
“I don’t think that was the real him out there,” Simpson said. “As a coach I’ve learned it’s not just working hard, it’s working smart. I think he’s just now learning that.”
Bader refuses to make excuses for his losses, but he and Simpson agree that he’s coming off his best camp ever. His striking has improved faster than Simpson's and Dollaway's (the three train together at the gym they own in Arizona, Power MMA and Fitness) and for the first time in his UFC career Bader has listened to coaches and teammates when they tell him to take time off to let his body recover. As a result, he said the healthiest, most talented Ryan Bader ever will be fighting in the octagon in San Jose.
“Coming into the UFC I was just a wrestler,” Bader admits. “The fighter I am now would crush me three years ago.”
Even with his improved striking skills and a lower-profile opponent, Bader is still under pressure at UFC 139. On Saturday, Bader and Brilz could be fighting to keep their UFC contracts. Dana White’s organization has a history of cutting fighters after three-fight losing streaks.
“You have to go out there and fight to win,” Bader said. “You can’t fight not to lose.”
When you start worrying about your UFC future in the octagon it can lead to trouble, he added, because ironically fighting not to lose is a good way to lose your job in the UFC.
-- Stephen Boyle