Champ-champs are all the rage in modern-day mixed martial arts, and Ryan Bader makes his bid to join the esteemed group at Bellator 214 when he takes on the legendary Fedor Emelianenko. For Bader — already the Bellator light-heavyweight champion — it would be a career-defining accomplishment. Once viewed as among the most promising light-heavyweights in the world, his UFC run hit a speed bump upon losing to Tito Ortiz in a shocking July 2011 upset. That defeat caused long-lasting reputational damage that spanned his entire stay in the organization, despite a 15-5 Octagon record and wins over notables including Quinton Jackson, Phil Davis and Rashad Evans.
His 2017 departure and subsequent Bellator signing offered a fresh start, and Bader has capitalized, going 4-0 in the promotion and leading into his Saturday fight with Fedor.
At 35 years old, Bader has built himself into a fully realized mixed martial artist. While he once plied his trade as an overpowering wrestler who wielded a mighty right hand, he has rounded out his offense while adding a fluidity of movement that was so visibly absent in his early days.
Bader is now capable of springing his offense is any number of ways. Fighting out of an orthodox stance, his jab is clean and stinging, and he can pair it with a blasting right, a left hook and powerful low kicks.
Last May in his Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix tournament opener, he used a step-in left hook to stop Muhammed Lawal. Then, facing Matt Mitrione in the semifinals, Bader bulldozed him with a relentless series of takedowns, showcasing a punishing and dominant top-game en route to a lopsided decision. He has, at this point in their respective careers, a more complete arsenal than Emelianenko does. It is not difficult to picture him stepping under wild swings, putting the heavyweight great on his back, and patiently battering his way to victory.
Emelianenko reached the final through a pair of first-round knockout wins against Frank Mir and Chael Sonnen, respectively. While time has dulled some of Emelianenko’s offensive effectiveness, it has yet to rob him of his power. He essentially put Mir’s lights out with a right-hand behind the ear, and he put Sonnen on his back in the opening five seconds of their match with a might lefty hook as the back-end of a right/left combo. Even in his loss to Mitrione, he knocked the big man down with a right hand, only to suffer a knockdown at the exact same time, leading to defeat.
Suffice it to say, he’s still dangerous. His brand of striking is mostly characterized by sheer aggression. Emelianenko attempts to draw forward movement from his opponent before cutting him off with a hail of strikes, including the looping, downward-fisted Russian hooks that have been a staple of his highlight reel since the beginning. He is not averse to a firefight, particularly if he can ensure that he gets off the first shots.
Emelianenko’s style evolved this way as he determined that opponents respond to such attacks in one of three ways: they either retreat, stand and trade with him, or race into a clinch. While the first of those results is outcome-neutral, the other two have almost always historically played into his hands. In the first, Emelianenko has nearly always boasted a hand-speed advantage over his opponents; that has been one of his key advantages as a small heavyweight. In the other, he has always found comfort. During his heyday, Emelianenko was perhaps the best clinch fighter in the world, often firing off a right hand as an entry into the position, where he boasted an almost unstoppable series of throws and trips.
In the past, Emelianenko could get through occasional recklessness because he boasted an iron chin as well as incredible hips that could stuff any takedown shot that may come under one of his looping strikes. Like all fighters, his chin has been compromised by his time in the cage, and he’s been knocked down in two of his last three fights.
So his is not a formula that can be regularly expected to work in 2019. Emelianenko still brings danger with him, but it may be short-lived. Since 2010, Emelianenko has only won two fights that have gone past one round, and one of them was a highly disputed decision against journeyman Fabio Maldonado.
Bader’s key to victory is to survive Emelianenko’s dangerous first-round eruptions. He will have to show patience and to disguise takedown attempts with strikes rather than simply bursting forward. If he can put Emelianenko on the mat or wear him down along the fence while sustaining his own conditioning, it will be all the better for his chances.
From the bottom, Emelianenko was once known for his mighty guard. He could latch and pivot into an armbar with a quickness; coupled with his savage power and clinch skills, and he seemed almost supernatural.
Things are not quite the same any longer. Emelianenko still has an aura, but we know he can be hurt, we know he can be beaten. Bader has the kind of rugged wrestling skills and knockout power of his own to even the playing field, and with his increased offensive efficiency and effectiveness, this is his fight to lose. The pick is Bader by TKO in the late second or early third round as the champ-champ club inducts a new member.