Ryan Bader faces Fedor Emelianenko in the final of the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix at The Forum in Los Angeles. He spoke exclusively to The Telergraph on the eve of his most high-profile challenge to date.
Ryan, you’ve said you have to respect what Fedor has done – but too many opponents of his respect him too much ?
Bader: “The respect is there between Fedor and I. Obviously he’s one of the best ever to do it, and all that kind if stuff. But, I’ve stood across from the ‘Who’s Who of MMA’ in my career. I think if it was my fourth fight it would be a little different. I’m just looking across at Fedor, 42-year-old Fedor – the guy who’s been winning this tournament and finished two guys. That’s what at look at, his last four or five fights. I’m not going back and looking at his fights from the early 2000s. The respect is there for sure, but at the same time I’m just fighting him at this particular time.”
Does being made favourite with the bookmakers put extra pressure on you ?
“I don’t even look at that. Heavyweight, big guys and 205s – the favourite doesn’t really mean much to me at all. We show up on a certain night, may the best man win. There’s always some craziness in MMA. I know I’m prepare and if he’s prepared, it’s who is better that night.”
What would victory over Fedor mean to you ?
“I think it would be one of the biggest wins of my career. Just everything combined – the tournament, me going up to heavyweight, beating one of the greatest heavyweights of all time for the heavyweight championship. It’s kind of like the perfect storm. That’s what is exciting to me. That’s why it will kind of make it the biggest win in my career.”
You signed a six-fight contract with Bellator, you are down to one more fight after this. You stay with Bellator ?
“Yep, so I’m 11-1 in my last 12 fights. 5-0 in Bellator. I have one more fight after this on my Bellator contract. I think I have some champion clauses, but I want to stay here. I’m happy here. I was able to do stuff like this, moving up to heavyweight and doing this tournament. That is exactly the stuff I was looking to do. I’m very happy. So after this fight I see us coming to the table and renewing if all goes right.”
How will you take stock about both belts, if you win at The Forum ?
“Going out there and winning this fight I know I’ll be in a good position. That’s kind of where we’ll go from. I’ll talk with Bellator. For me, I’m a 205er. I’m also a heavyweight, but not a huge heavyweight. It’s go to be worth my while to stay up here and keep fighting these big, big boys. That’s why I say I’ve got one fight left, I’ll come to the table and see what’s right. What I defend first is part of it. If they make me extremely happy to stay at heavyweight, I’ll do that. It’s kind of where they want me. At the same time, I’ve got to be motivated and compensated for that.”
What do you make of Jack Swagger coming from WWE to MMA ? Can he be a contender ?
“I think he’s so far off right now. He’s 0-0 right now. Those are big fights. I was with him yesterday, I was with him the same time in college. He’s a good dude, I was trying to give him some advice and stuff like that. We’re here, as far as being fighters and as fighters you want the best fights and if he turns out to be something special then later on down the road, then sure. He was a heavyweight. I never wrestled him.”
“I think everyone around my weight, if they can get up to heavyweight, it’s the pinnacle. We’ve seen it time and time again these 205ers can go up and beat the best heavyweights. For me going into my last fight, Matt Mitrione was a top heavyweight. He was undefeated in Bellator and probably would have been fighting for the championship. I went out there and put on a good show. It’s not one of those things where I can’t hang with the heavyweights. I bring some unique abilities to that division.”
What do you feel about a tournament for the 205-ers ?
“I don’t think I’d want to do a tournament at 205. I have the belt. I don’t think there’s a clear cut contender that has risen to the top there. They can do a tournament and I could fight the winner.”
“I don’t see the upside to a tournament for me as champion. There’s an upside to them coming to the table and making it financially appealing, but as of now, I won the belt, I am the champion, I came up here for the tournament – why should I have to put my belt on the line in another tournament? Let a clear cut contender come out of there and then I will defend my belt.”
Do you look back on your time in the UFC with disappointment ?
“There was a period for sure, when I was on a five-fight winning streak and (Alexander) Gustafsson got a title shot off a knockout loss. But after that I stopped thinking about that. I had a loss after that, and thought I’m just going to have fun out here. Fighting to my best ability and see what happens. Then my mental game caught up. From then on out, I knocked out Ilir Latifi real bad, I finished Nogueria in Brazil. Then I came over to Bellator, won the belt, defended the belt. I won my first two fights in the heavyweight Grand Prix. Here we are in the finals.”
What did you make of Jon Jones at the New Year against Gustafsson ?
“I thought he looked good. He’s a unique fighter, and he uses his abilities really well. Keeping guys on the outside and within his length and reach. He made those adjustments against Gustafsson really well and once he was in a dominant position, the fight’s over. I kind of keep myself out of Jones’ whole thing. I’ll let him and DC figure that out. I’m so far removed from it right now, I really don’t even care.”
Would it be a dream if you won to combine all MMA and fight DC Cormier ? You would both be champ-champs …
“I’m happy here, but if there’s some sort of cross promotion thing and it eventually got done it would be pretty amazing. He’s definitely one of the best 205ers out there and the double champ. If I win this fight, I’m a double champ here. That’s hard to do in this upper weights. That fight makes sense, theoretically, but it’s a whole thing. Eventually, I think it could happen. But right now I know the UFC aren’t looking to do stuff with anyone else. Rightfully so, it’s their business. I do think at one point in the future we’ll be able to see some cross promotion. At the end of the day, money’s money. If it’s a fight everyone wants to see and it makes sense for both promotions, then why not?”
“Look at Mayweather-McGregor, no one thought that would get done. But at the end of the day it made financial sense for everybody. This is a business. If you can get it done without sacrificing anything with your business, then why not.”
Are you in your prime now ?
“I feel the best I’ve ever felt now at 35. I’ve never really been beat up. Phil Davis and I when we were in the UFC, we were two of the least hit guys in the UFC. I feel great right now. It’s one of those things where I feel I’m in my prime. I came into my prime a little later. That was due to experience and all the technical things catching up. Fighting until 40 is not out the window. It’s a good time to be in MMA with my resume. There’s a lot more money coming in and opportunities. It used to be a one-show sport, but other shows are definitely on their heels and there’s opportunities. That’s great for us. If I’m still healthy and having fun, I will keep going.”
How about coming to Europe to fight ?
“I made a career fighting overseas. I fought in Australia, Germany and Japan. I’ve flown all over the world. I don’t think I’ve lost going over seas, I lost in Brazil one time. I was always to handle the travel really well. I’m always open to that.”
What do opponents fear in your game ?
“If they over commit, they’ll get taken down. And I have heavy hands. I feel like I’m unpredictable. It’s hard to watch tape and say okay, this is what he’s going to do. It may not be the prettiest, but it gets the job done. I’ve made a career off of that. That double dynamic of having heavy hands plus being able to put you on your back, it’s a good double armoury.”
What are the changes that stand out in MMA in your decade competing ?
“The sport has changed a ton. When I started it was more underground, I started at the tail end of that. But now it’s so accepted and part of the sport culture with the NFL and NBA.”
Do you think MMA fighters now get respect from the other athletes in the leading sports ?
“A lot of other sports figures definitely respect us. Because everyone wants to be tough, right? Well we do that for real. There’s other guys like football and hockey players who are tough. Baseball players not so much. I’ve seen MMA turn towards the entertainment part also. Conor McGregor came in and turned the sport upside down. Now we see other guys trying to follow that example. Alex Hernandez who just fought Cowboy, he talked a big game. If you can back it up, like Conor did, then you’re something special. But if you’re just coming out and you can’t back it up, it’s only a matter of time before you look like a fool.”
You are not one for smack talk. No one seems to get under your skin…
“At certain points in the build-up to a fight you might get a question that’s coercing you, and some smack talk comes out. I’ve always been confident, but not cocky. I’m not going to fabricate some shit talk just because we’re fighting. I respect everyone who goes out there. If somebody is giving it to me, I’ll give some back but I won’t come out and start s— just for the sake of it.”
Has it helped that you know with Fedor that there is no smack talk … ?
“I love that about him. I respect him a lot. I didn’t know that either, he’s always been respectful. He gives the right answers, and it’s not what people want to hear all time. I like coming into a fight where there’s respect there. We go into the cage and compete. Then afterwards it is what it is.”
Take us back to that staredown with Fedor in the cage after he defeated Chael. What did you see … ?
“I don’t relive it, but I could definitely put myself back in that moment. If this was basketball it would be like watching Michael Jordan play, going through my youth career and getting into the NBA to stand across from him. That doesn’t mean I’m going to let him have his way. I’m the new guy coming up and I need to prove myself. It’s very cool for me to fight him, but it’s time for me to cement my legacy. What better way to do that than with Fedor. We’re just going out there for a fight, nothing verbal. There’s too much respect there.”