Generally when a fighter is on the kind of roll that Ryan Bader has been on, things aren’t headed for free agency. Yet in Bader’s case, having scored TKO stoppages in his last couple of fights — and having won seven of eight overall — was perfect momentum to figure out his worth.
And it looks like he’s about to get his answer. Perhaps in the next couple of days.
The 33-year old Bader is in deep talks with Bellator to become the latest free agent to defect from the UFC. He fought his contract out against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira back in November, and recently met with Bellator officials to work out a deal. Should he sign a contract, the UFC will have the right to match the offer.
Either way, the fourth-ranked UFC fighter says he’s in a “great position right now.”
“I have a Bellator offer coming either today or tomorrow,” he said on Monday during an appearance on The MMA Hour. “We kind of know the particulars. I went out and met with Scott Coker and the Bellator boys and I liked what they had to say, and I liked what they were about. So we’re going through that process. That being said, the UFC has the right to match. It’s kind of in a weird place. I’m super-excited to be in this position. I’m in a great position.”
Bader said it was an adventure to head down to Sao Paulo to fight his contract out, knowing that his 20-fight UFC stint could be coming to an end.
“I was going into that [Nogueira] fight…I was soaking up every single minute,” he said. “I started off, what, four or five or six fights with local promotions and whatnot, then I went onto the The Ultimate Fighter and ended up winning The Ultimate Fighter and into the UFC and had 20 fights in the UFC. I traveled the world and everything, and going into that fight it was a very exciting time. You know, I was fighting Lil Nog down in Brazil. I was fighting my contract out. I knew it, everybody knew it. So I was kind of soaking in every little moment potentially being my last fight in the UFC.”
Bader ended up finishing Nogueira via a third-round TKO, which parlayed nicely with his knockout of Ilir Latifi just two months earlier at UFC Fight Night 93 in Hamburg, Germany. His only loss since 2013 came against Anthony Johnson back a year ago in New Jersey. With his recent record as proof, Bader said he felt like he was just hitting his stride, and that he’d “be a champion in whichever organization” he ended up fighting in next.
One thing that Bader made clear was that he wasn’t necessarily drawn to signing a contact with “X” amount of fights and “X” amount of money, which is traditionally how Zuffa contracts work. He admitted he liked the leeway in Bellator’s structure. And, having never received a title shot in the UFC’s light heavyweight division, he also wants to feel like he knows his bearings heading in.
“It’s about opportunity,” he told Ariel Helwani. “I want to know what [Bellator’s] plan is for me also, on both sides. I just don’t want to sign a deal, saying, ‘okay we’re signing a four, six, eight fight deal and these are your terms and this is your money, alright, good to go, bye.’ I want to know the plan is for me in particular. What we’re thinking about first fight? What is the road to the title? More looking at something in stone [instead of] just signing a contract and never knowing where you’re at.”
As with other fighters that have jumped ship from Zuffa, the Reebok deal is another sticking point for Bader.
“There’s other stuff than just the money in the terms of the contract,” he said. “Part of it, and why I actually fought it out, was opportunity, what’s the plan, and smart stuff. Obviously sponsors, I took a big hit in sponsors when that whole [Reebok] thing came out. Just little stuff. So when it came time to re-sign, we said, why would we sign? Why wouldn’t we bet on ourselves, play this thing out and see what’s out there. See what I’m worth, see what opportunities are out there.”
Though Bader ultimately said he wouldn’t let the fact that he never got a title shot plague him, it went into his decision to test the open market. And another factor was just the old prizefighting structure of “win” bonuses, where a fighter is paid his show money generally doubles his income with a victory. As a professional athlete, Bader said a flat rate is more rational, especially because a guaranteed all-inclusive purse allows him to fight the way he wants to fight.
“The whole show and win purse system, I don’t believe is the best either,” he said. “Sure, people…you go in there and you’re getting your pay check, then you’re fighting for that same paycheck to go out there and win.
“You go out there and you can let it all loose, and go out there and fight the way you want to, without having to say hey, I need to go in there and wrestle this guy because I know I can beat him doing that. Instead you can just go out there and fight and just let it all loose.”
With Anthony Johnson set to fight Daniel Cormier for the 205-pound title in April at UFC 210, and Jon Jones expected to be waiting in the wings for the winner, Bader might have a clearer shot to face Phil Davis for the Bellator title sooner rather than later.
And since the two have a history together — Bader took a split-decision over Davis at UFC on FOX 14 back in early-2015 — he thinks the path to a title could be pre-paved.
“I do believe we can [get a title shot right away],” he said. “That’s another thing, like I said, I keep hitting on the word opportunity and the plan — what’s your plan for me? And so, things like that are being discussed. I know [Davis] probably wants to get that win back…that’s definitely part of it.”
When asked if he would welcome a fight with the recently retired Tito Ortiz, who defeated Bader back at UFC 132 in 2011, Bader didn’t hesitate.
“I would love to, absolutely,” he said.