Almost three years ago to the day, Ryan Bader won the Bellator heavyweight championship with a surprising knockout of the great Fedor Emelianenko. And this Saturday Bader will defend that title against Emelianenko protégé Valentin Moldavsky at Bellator 273, with a rematch against Emelianenko likely awaiting him.
Until he signed with Bellator, Bader had been known almost exclusively as a light heavyweight. That was his division in the UFC, where he fought from 2008 to ’16. Bader (28–7, 1 NC) signed with Bellator in 2017, and has put together a phenomenal run with the company, becoming the first-ever simultaneous two-weight champion in Bellator history when he held both the light heavyweight and heavyweight titles. He lost the light heavyweight belt in August 2020, which frees him to now fight exclusively as a heavyweight.
Bader last defended the heavyweight title in September 2019 against Cheick Kongo, a bout that was ruled a no-contest after an accidental eye poke left Kongo unable to continue. While Bader competed in Bellator’s Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix, Moldavsky (11–1) ripped off two wins in 2020, then won the interim heavyweight title last June. Their fight should add clarity to a snake-bitten heavyweight division, as well as set up a rematch between Emelianenko and Bader.
Speaking with Sports Illustrated, Bader discussed his title fight, changing weight classes, and the possibility of fighting Emelianenko in Russia.
Sports Illustrated: Mentally and physically, has it been difficult to fight as a light heavyweight and heavyweight?
Ryan Bader: When I got the taste of the heavyweight life, it was definitely nice. I’m a lot happier throughout training camp, and heavyweight fight week is a lot different than a light heavyweight fight week. I’m eating, keeping my body fueled up. At light heavyweight, I’m watching what I eat throughout my entire camp, and cutting weight is a fight in and of itself. That affects the way I fight and the way I feel, especially with shots I can take fully hydrated at heavyweight.
Weight cuts are so draining. It’s something I’ve done since high school wrestling. During the Heavyweight Grand Prix, that’s when I realized I feel so much better fighting as a heavyweight. And I’m performing better.
For years, I had coaches tell me to try the heavyweight division, but I always thought I was too small. When I finally tried it during the Bellator Grand Prix, I felt great. I’m just as strong and faster than these heavyweights, and I feel a ton better walking into the cage as a heavyweight.
SI: The Bellator heavyweight division has lacked stability and, at times, has even felt snake-bitten. Do you feel an extra responsibility on your shoulders to deliver a great fight on Saturday?
RB: I’m just doing my job. I’ve got a fight in front of me, and it’s time to unify the belts and then defend this thing. So I’m going out there to do my job and fight.
SI: Your body of work continues to evolve in MMA. Entering this title bout as a sizable underdog, do you feel as though you receive the respect you deserve?
RB: I know what I’ve accomplished. My family knows, and so do my training partners and my team and my fans. There are always going to be haters trying to tear you down, but you’re at the top for a reason. So I don’t pay any attention to that. I’m too focused on going out there and doing my thing.
SI: Stylistically, the fight against Moldavsky should be interesting. Is the key controlling the pace?
RB: I believe my cardio and endurance are big weapons. He’s not a huge heavyweight; he’s more of a hybrid like myself, but I feel like I’m faster and just as strong. My wrestling and grappling are better. He’s going to be strong right in front of me or up on the cage, so I need to cut angles and move his body. A lot of heavyweights aren’t used to that, but I’ve been doing it my whole life.
I think he’s good everywhere. Not great, but he’s good. I’m looking forward to making this a fight where, after one round, he’s asking himself if he can do this.
SI: Fedor mentioned your name for his next—and potentially last—fight, which will be held in Russia. Once we are beyond Saturday, is that a fight you’ll consider?
RB: It’s definitely a fight I’ll consider. It’s a big fight, especially if it’s his retirement fight in Russia. But that being said, on a business aspect, you could look at it as a lose-lose. I probably can’t go out there and beat him in any more spectacular fashion than I already did. And it’s his retirement fight, so if he wins, there is no rematch.
But there are some wins there. That’s a big fight. I’ll have to get with Bellator and see if they can make it a no-brainer for me financially.
SI: You have fought so many great opponents, including Jon Jones and Glover Teixeira. Now that you’re a heavyweight, do you ever compare yourself to Francis Ngannou or Stipe Miocic?
RB: A long time ago, when I won Ultimate Fighter, I didn’t know where I was in terms of skill level compared to some of these top guys. Along comes Keith Jardine, and I had a fight with him. He’d beat Chuck Liddell, and that was a step up for me. I remember when the fight started and he was throwing punches at me, that’s when I knew I could compete with him. A guy that’s on this [Bellator 273] card, Sullivan Cauley, who’s an up-and-comer, I was telling him he’s really good. He’s as good as anybody out there, so I was telling him not to put other guys on a pedestal. We need to believe in ourselves. That’s key.
I’ve been able to train with Stipe, and I’ve only gained confidence from doing that. I need to think I am and I can be the best in the world. I feel like I’m there. A younger me would always question that. Now I know I am and I can be the best.
SI: Looking beyond Saturday, will you stay in the heavyweight division?
RB: I’m fully concentrating now at heavyweight. I’m happy, enjoying the process from training camp all the way to fight week. Not cutting weight is great for me. The last couple weight cuts weren’t phenomenal, and maybe that’s just me getting older. And these heavyweight fights have been great. I feel like I’m a better fighter here. I see everything, I’m just as strong, and I feel great at this weight.
SI: You beat Fedor, now you’re looking to defeat his protégé. What can we expect to see against Moldavsky?
RB: I’ve got the real one, and now it’s time to unify these belts. These Russians are after me, and I’m going to try to pick him off on Saturday.