With two belts around his waist, there’s no stopping Ryan Bader.
Until recently, Bader was best known for his 20-fight run in the UFC. He was a longtime contender in the light heavyweight division, but he failed to reach the very top in that promotion; he never even fought for the UFC title.
At 36 years old, and with 12 years of professional MMA experience under his belt, Bader has finally hit his peak in the sport. Bader signed with Bellator in 2017, and after winning the 205-pound title, he became Bellator’s first two-division champion by finishing Fedor Emelianenko in the Bellator heavyweight grand prix final.
Bader meets Cheick Kongo in his first heavyweight title defense in the main event of Bellator 226, which takes place Saturday night in San Jose. Bloody Elbow recently caught up with Bader to discuss his time as Bellator champ champ, whether he still plans on defending both titles, earning deserved recognition from fans since joining Bellator, and more.
What was it like being on Family Feud?
It was very cool. Scott Coker called and asked if I wanted to be part of it. I definitely did. It was almost like a fight. You go back in the little green room, get ready, then you come out. It was a little nerve-wracking, you have the whole crowd, and all the cameras on you. You’re definitely under pressure; they’re asking you stuff that you’re really not used to. It was a fun time, and we got to do it with some great people — legends in MMA and in WWE. I had a great time with it, and definitely would like to do more stuff like that for sure.
Scott Coker said in a recent interview that you’ll have more entertainment opportunities in the future. Are you looking forward to those?
Yeah, I like getting outside of my comfort zone and doing stuff like that. I told Scott to keep me in mind for anything like that. You definitely get to show off a different side of you, instead of everything being only MMA.
It’s been eight months since you won the Bellator heavyweight title with the win over Fedor Emelianenko. You became Bellator’s first two-division champion. What has life been like as champ champ?
I’m always training. I’m training every day, and I have been since that fight. I was trying to get on the June cards, but it’s finally here. I’m super excited, and I want to keep it rolling. I got three young kids — 7, 6, and 4 — I got my business, and my guys are always fighting, so I’m always busy.
It sounds like life hasn’t changed all that much — you seem to be doing the same things you’ve always done.
Not at all. It was great to go out there and become the double champ and beat Fedor, but literally the moment I stepped outside of the cage, I enjoyed it, I soaked it in, I had three belts, and back to normal life right after. That’s how I think it should be. You can’t be out there getting a big head. I still have the same friends, still have my family. Yes, I had a great night, and I’ve been doing well, but I’m just gonna be the same old me for sure.
As the Bellator double champion, do you feel like you’re finally getting the spotlight and the recognition you’ve deserved for a long time?
The biggest thing is the opportunities I’m getting. I’ve always said that if you give me the opportunity, I’m going to take advantage of it. I’ve fallen short in my career, in MMA, but it is what it is. You’re going to do that. I just wanted opportunities. Coming over to Bellator, it was a great decision. I came over and had the opportunity to fight for the light heavyweight title right away at Madison Square Garden. I defended that, then I got asked to do the heavyweight grand prix. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. I do feel like I’m getting that recognition, not that I feel like I deserve, but I knew I could live up to.
Many people say your career has been very underrated. Are people finally coming around to the idea that you’re simply a really talented fighter, or do you still feel a bit overlooked?
I always feel a little underrated, and I like that. I like proving people wrong. Maybe that comes from my wrestling background. I don’t know. I’m, what, 11-1 in my last 12 fights, and my last five fights, they’re mostly knockouts. We’re getting there, but I don’t really care. I use it as fuel, but I’m gonna keep doing what I’ve been doing — everything will take care of itself. But I do feel the tide turning a little bit for sure.
Do you feel like a different person than the Ryan Bader who fought in the UFC all those years?
Yeah, 100 percent. There are a couple different factors to that. There was a time in the UFC, after the Anthony Johnson fight, where I said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna quit making a big deal of these fights. I’m gonna have fun and make it exciting and enjoy the process.’ Ever since then, I’ve been on a tear. I finished (Ilir) Latifi with a knee, finished (Antonio Rogerio) Nogueira, then went to Bellator and went on a five-fight run. I think it was a big mental shift, where I’m like, ‘Alright, let’s have fun. Let’s enjoy everything. I believe I’m the best in the world, let’s just go out there and prove it.’ Coming over to Bellator, I was invigorated, re-energized, all that kind of stuff.
As Bellator champion, have you gotten used to having a target on your back?
When you’re coming up, you’re vying for that title — ‘alright, what do I gotta do to fight for that title?’ You win the title, and you’re the guy that everyone is calling out. It’s a little different. But when you win two titles, you have double the opponents coming after you. You gotta get used to the fact that people are gonna do whatever they think they have to do to get that title shot, whether that’s talking sh-t, throwing you under the bus, trying to get a rise out of you. It’s definitely different than what I’m used to, but I’m fine with it.
You’re fighting Cheick Kongo in the Bellator 226 main event on Saturday night in San Jose. You’ve fought a lot of elite fighters. Is he any different than what you’ve been faced with in the past?
If you add up all my opponents, I’ve seem him before for sure. But every fighter has their own unique stuff that they’re going to bring. He’s long, good striker, he definitely has a different energy in the cage. But at the same time, I’ve been in there 35 times. I’ve seen it all at this point. I’ve fought my own heroes — even in my last fight, it was like, ‘Holy sh-t, that’s Fedor.’ Nothing rattles me anymore. I look at this as another fight. I’ve been in there with guys like him before.
What’s the biggest challenge Kongo poses to you?
He’s very patient. He gets on the cage, and he kind of waits. He’s good in the clinch, he’s long. But a lot of the stuff he’s good at I can gauge very well. If he starts hitting me, he gets taken down. I have power in both of my hands. He definitely poses challenges, and he’s on an eight-fight winning streak in Bellator. Obviously he’s doing something right.
Sometimes double champions think they can go between both divisions, but it doesn’t end up playing out like that. It doesn’t line up or it’s simply too much. As of right now, do you still want to defend both titles, or do you see yourself dropping one of them sooner than later?
I think I can defend both. I’ve always done what Bellator has asked. It’s not like I’m holding one hostage. When they asked me to do the heavyweight grand prix, they said hey, ‘We’ll put your light heavyweight title on hold, you can keep that. Come do this tournament.’ I said OK, as long as we get to keep that. I ended up winning the tournament, and they wanted me to defend the heavyweight title first. I’ve done what they have asked. I see no reason why they would ever come and strip a title. I’ve taken whoever they’ve wanted.
For me, it’s been great, because coming off the heavyweight win over Fedor, I don’t have to yo-yo. I plan on doing a couple at each weight. So, I’ve won the heavyweight, I’m going to defend the heavyweight right away, and then I can drop down to 205 and maybe do two fights. Then go back up. This way, I’m not yo-yoing every single fight — losing weight, gaining weight, losing weight, gaining weight. I’d have six months or so to keep that weight on or lose it.
Has Bellator actually told you that you’ll be defending your 205-pound title after the Kongo fight, or is that just what you’re expecting to happen?
I’ve spoken with the brass, and that’s what we’re leaning toward right now. But nothing is 100 percent.
Scott Coker said the winner of Gegard Mousasi vs. Lyoto Machida (at middleweight) could get the next light heavyweight title shot. Do you like that option?
There are so many variables when you get down to it, but I like that fight. There are a ton of fights that I like, and that’s what’s good about having two titles. The Mousasi vs. Machida winner is definitely a great option for sure.
At Bellator 225, heavyweight contenders Vitaly Minakov and Sergei Kharitonov picked up big wins. Should they fight in a title eliminator while you return to 205 pounds?
If I’m going back down to 205, there would probably have to be a title eliminator in there somewhere. The light heavyweight title has been neglected a little bit, so I’d like to have two fights down there like I said. If [Minakov and Kharitonov] are going to sit and wait, then so be it, but I definitely think they should keep fighting.
Stipe Miocic recently recaptured the UFC heavyweight title with a fourth-round TKO of Daniel Cormier. UFC and Bellator champions probably won’t ever fight each other, but what would you make of a fantasy matchup with Miocic?
I like Stipe. I’ve trained with him before, I consider him a friend. But I feel like I’m the best in the world. I definitely believe I can beat anybody — Stipe, whoever it is, whoever has the title. I’m in that conversation now, and I just get to continually prove that.
You have two Bellator titles, but Kyoji Horiguchi is a champion in two major promotions — Bellator and Rizin FF. Would you like to go to Japan for a fight with Rizin?
Hell yeah. When I first started hearing about Bellator maybe going to Japan in December, that’s what I thought it would be — the Bellator and Rizin cross-promotion event. I had my eyes on the 205-pound title over there. That definitely would interest me. I came over to Bellator for these opportunities. I’m open to anything and everything.
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