The UFC's light heavyweight division has long been the promotion's premier class. With relatively few exceptions, the UFC has locked down top stars and prospects at that weight, which makes Ryan Bader -- an undefeated 27-year-old former Arizona State University wrestler who made a statement by easily winning the eighth season of Spike TV's The Ultimate Fighter -- someone worth watching.
"I'm undefeated in this division, one step closer to the title," Bader said after arriving in Indianapolis, where he fights respected veteran Antonio Rogerio Nogueira on Saturday night at UFC 119.
Glancing at Bader's 11-0 record, it's clear Nogueira represents the stiffest test of the powerful prospect's expectation that one day he'll stand atop a division that, over the last decade, gave rise to fighters like Chuck Liddell, Wanderlei Silva and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua.
Invariably, Bader finds himself being compared to Jon Jones, who at 23 has seized the mantle of MMA's next great light heavyweight prospect. With a win over Nogueira, Bader and Jones may very well clash next in what would certainly make for a compelling bout. That may not happen as soon as fans, Jones or the UFC wants -- Bader gets married at the end of October, and said he'd like to take some time off before his next bout.
One never knows if he can hack it until he's called to do so. For as much confidence as the 6-foot-2 Bader exudes, even he wasn't sure if he belonged until his last bout, when he stepped in the cage against veteran Keith Jardine.
"I didn't know if he was on another level," Bader said. "I didn't know. But right when we started fighting, I knew."
SI.com caught up with Bader on Wednesday to talk about his budding career, the Arizona State wrestling pedigree and what drives him to fight.
SI.com: What do you think about fighting Nogueira at this stage of your career? Do you think he's the kind of opposition you should be fighting at this point?
Ryan Bader: Yeah, I think it's the next logical step. After I beat Keith Jardine, I'm looking to go up the ladder. I'm not looking for easy fights. Once you get to this level, there are not going to be any easy fights. You may as well fight people who put you up to the next level and that's Nogueira. It's a great opportunity for me as a fan and a fighter. It's going to be great for my career, obviously, but it'll be a great satisfaction knowing I beat Nogueira, that type of caliber guy.
SI.com: What did you make of Nogueira's last fight, against Jason Brilz? Did you think he had an off night or is he just a step slower than he used to be?
Bader: I don't know. Every fighter has an off night. I watched the fight. I'm expecting the best [from] Nogueira. That's what I trained for. I saw a few things in that fight I can use because Brilz and I are both wrestlers. He really mixed his standup, his kicks and takedowns well. He created scrambles that put Nogueira in positions that wrestlers usually come out on top on. He did a good job mixing everything up. He gave me a little bit of a blueprint. But I'm not expecting that fighter to come out. I'm expecting the best Nog we've ever seen.
SI.com: The gym you opened -- I know it's you, Aaron Simpson and some of your Arizona State wrestling buddies. What's the gym like? Are you just training among yourselves or did you bring in coaches?
Ryan Bader: It's actually not open yet. It'll be open in a couple months to the general public. It's me, CB Dollaway and Aaron Simpson. Mike Miller, from the Miami Heat, is also a partner. We brought in a new coaching staff. I kind of wanted to break it down individually so I could really work in the intricacies of each discipline. I got a Muay Thai coach, a boxing coach and two black belts in jiu-jitsu. It's really helped a lot. I've been working with them for three months now. They're going to come over when we get it open. They're running the show here. They're our coaches now.
The gym is a 25,000-square-foot facility, 5,000 square feet of mats, a replica of the UFC Octagon. It's also a fitness center. It has all the treadmills, all the weights you need. Half-court basketball court. It's a one-stop shop for us so we don't have to travel around. We can just go to our gym, not worry about it, and have people put us through our work. It should be nice to have our own place. We're having different guys come in. Seth Petruzelli is coming down to train for his fight. Robbie Lawler comes down every month. We're trying to bring in more guys. For a 205'er, 185, 170, even heavyweight, it's a great place to come down and train.
SI.com: It sounds like a big project, one that you put a lot of work into. Was it in any way a distraction leading up to this fight? It's another thing to worry about. An important thing.
Bader: Not at all. We set it up where we don't have to run the day-to-day operations. We show up and we train. Everything else is taken care of. It's not going to be any different than what we've been doing.
SI.com: It's a different situation than you had at the beginning of your career training at Arizona Combat Sports with the Lally brothers. Can you explain why it was time for you to move on?
Bader: The Lallys are great trainers and got us to where we are today. But we felt like we were hitting plateaus. We just wanted a change and that came mostly for us to start our own gym. We had to jump on that opportunity and went out and got new coaches. Everything worked out perfectly.
SI.com: I'm curious about Arizona State. I can't think of a wrestling program that's delivered better fighters than ASU. Is there something in particular that you guys were doing there that made that possible?
Bader: We had older guys like Don Frye, Dan Severn, Dan Henderson, Towsen Saunders. All those guys who pioneered the sport. Then it came time for Cain Velasquez; he knew he wanted to fight. We had some friends who were fighting. It was just kind of the group of guys. We all wanted to continue to be athletes and we were burned out on wrestling, but we wanted to continue our athletic career and MMA was the next logical choice. We were close friends and all supported each other. When one of us started learning MMA, the rest of us kind of went in not even knowing we were going to fight and trained. We took one fight at a time and before you knew it all of us were fighting and being successful. Hopefully more guys come from that program and follow our lead a little bit and then give back to ASU wrestling and the wrestling community in general. I think MMA has definitely given wrestling a little boost.
SI.com: There are many wrestlers in MMA. What is it about your style and what you do, and also how you've incorporated other aspects of the sport that put you in a position to be 11-0 and, with a win or two, really be in the title picture?
Bader: Mind-set. Mental toughness. And my ability to know what kind of work I have to put in to get my result. I work hard. So do all the guys around us. We want to be the best. We're not in the sport to be on TV every once in a while and be mediocre. We're here to be champions. That's our mind-set since we were 8 years old and first started wrestling. It's ingrained in us. I know how to work hard. My standup is getting more crisp. My jiu-jitsu is being worked on every day. I have some power in my hands and I try to utilize that to the best of my abilities and be better every single time. I just want to get better every single day. When I was wrestling, I felt like I was hitting plateaus and wasn't getting better. I felt like I was the best I could be. So I enjoy going to practice now.
SI.com: What is it that drives you to fight?
Bader: The competitiveness. The will to be a champion. That's my goal, in everything. I'm highly competitive, whether it's a board game or some sport. I love individiual sports. That's why I fight, to be the best at something that not a lot of people can do, or like. I've been a wrestler all my life. I'ts not a very popular sport. It's one-one-one. It's grueling. During college wrestling season, it was horrible sometimes. But I'm different in that aspect and I always tried to be the best at everything. This is my career. I want to be the best.
SI.com: About the fight on Saturday: What's your sense of how it will go down?
Bader: I just want it to be a good fight. I feel good. I'm ready for this fight. I'll box with him if need be. If it's a knockout win or a good decision, it's going to be an exciting fight no matter what. He comes to fight. He comes to take your head off all the time. So will I. I want this fight bad. It has some implications to it. Getting closer to a title shot. Neither of us will give an inch and that always makes for a good fight.