Ryan Bader wasn’t surprised by what happened on Saturday night.
The reigning Bellator light heavyweight champion made history at Bellator 214 by knocking out MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko in just 35 seconds to win the promotion’s heavyweight grand prix, capture the promotion’s vacant heavyweight title, and become the first-ever simultaneous two-division Bellator champion. Altogether it was a masterful performance from Bader, who dropped Emelianenko with a hard lead left hook in the fight’s opening exchange, then pounced with follow-up punches until referee Mike Beltran waved off the action.
And for the 35-year-old standout, the final sequence played out exactly as expected.
“You know what? I saw that moment,” Bader said Saturday night at Bellator 214’s post-fight press conference. “And you can ask my team, we practiced that moment a lot. I saw that punch was going to do it. You can’t see his right hand because he throws from his hip. He’s very hard to see, he throws hard. But in doing so, you leave yourself exposed. And we felt that he was going to respect my wrestling a lot, and I could put one up top. If you look through any of the footage on the Countdown shows and all of that kind of stuff, we were practicing that punch the whole time. Throwing a jab, getting our distance, and then feinting and throwing that left hook, and we knew he’d be there.
“That’s a hard punch right there. He went down, and I saw that over and over again already, so it just kinda played out how we saw it.”
The quick victory over Emelianenko capped off what was effectively a flawless tournament run for Bader (27-5). “Darth” began his climb by knocking out Muhammed Lawal with a similar left-hand punch in just 15 seconds in the tourney’s quarterfinals, then dominated former UFC contender Matt Mitrione in another immaculate performance in the semifinals before cruising against the Russian legend. But for Bader, being able to culminate everything with an opportunity to face Emelianenko was wild enough.
“If I had the opportunity to fight any fighter, if you’d asked me when I started fighting, it would be Fedor,” Bader said. “That aura and mystique about him. And look what he’s done in this tournament — he goes out there and finishes two tough guys in the first round. And props to him. He comes out here, he does a heavyweight tournament with a bunch of killers and makes it to the finals. So I was very honored to be part of his story and now have him be part of my story. What happened tonight, you can take nothing away from Fedor.
“He’s put in that work and he’s cemented his legacy. So for me, I tried to keep my head down and it was time to cement mine.”
Bader is now a perfect 5-0 inside the Bellator cage and has won seven consecutive fights dating back to his UFC days. Most interestingly, though, is that he has scored vicious knockouts in five of those last seven contests — a trend which marks a steep departure for the former collegiate wrestler who used to win fights largely through his abilities on the mat.
It’s growth that Bader has noticed in himself, and he believes it’s a trend he can continue regardless of whether he’s competing at light heavyweight or heavyweight.
“In my past, I’ve always had the physical abilities,” Bader said. “They were always there, but sometimes the mental side of it — I was younger coming in as a wrestler, didn’t know what the hell I was doing on my feet. I literally didn’t know what I was doing on my feet until was I fighting Rashad [Evans in 2015], and I got a jab and was like, ‘Oh, it’s so much nicer being able to not freak out.’ So, the people around me, the coaches and people I have around me right now, we’re just in a good groove, we mesh really well, and it’s fun for me.
“I made a promise after my last loss to go out there and have fun, to not worry about the result of everything and hype it up and whatnot, and ever since then it’s been a great run.”
Of course, Bader isn’t the only man in MMA to become a dual champion at both light heavyweight and heavyweight. One of Bader’s old UFC rivals, Daniel Cormier, achieved a similar feat inside the Octagon in 2018 before vacating his light heavyweight title last month at UFC 232.
Bader and Cormier share plenty of history — the two nearly fought multiple times in the UFC and traded plenty of trash talk, but ultimately the matchup failed to ever come to fruition. It’s a chapter that Bader has passed, though he admitted he still wouldn’t mind a chance to meet Cormier and put each man’s gold on the line.
“I’m over that,” Bader said. “But he’s one of those guys, he proves himself over and over again. He’s a champ, in and out of the cage there, beating monsters. Nothing but respect from over here. It’d be fun to do a cross-promotion for the champ champ champ champ, but we’ll see if that ever happens.”