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Tales From The Smokers: Once upon a time in Mexico with Ryan Bader, C.B. Dollaway, and Cain Velasquez

Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix Finals: Fedor Emelianenko vs Ryan Bader Photo by TASS\TASS via Getty Images

The regional scene in combat sports can be a bizarre and unpredictable place. Nearly every fighter who comes up in this game has at least one story of an adventure they’ll never forget from their time on the early circuit. We like to document those stories here on Tales From The Smokers. Today’s comes from Ryan Bader, who fights Corey Anderson in a hometown affair in Phoenix as part of Bellator’s light heavyweight grand prix on Saturday at Bellator 268. So let us now go backwards to October 2007, to a small show with big expectations in Nogales, Mexico: SE Vale Tudo.

In retrospect, there were so many red flags. The pre-fight meeting. The walk to the bus. Hell, the bus ride itself. Take your pick. After all, who sends three naive kids trekking out on foot across the U.S.-Mexico border all by their lonesome? Who promises a sold-out show with big-time sponsors at a big-time venue, then starts fight day off like this, a trio of Arizona wrestlers wandering across the Nogales desert with their gear slung over their shoulders like bindles?

Ah, the joys of regional MMA. None of them knew any better back then anyway.

“This was our first year of fighting. We were young and crazy. We didn’t give a f*ck really,” says MMA veteran C.B. Dollaway. “But this was one of the weirdest [experiences I’ve ever had].”

Bellator heavyweight champion Ryan Bader and his cohorts — fellow recent Arizona State University wrestling grads Dollaway and Cain Velasquez — may have been new to their MMA careers in the fall of 2007, but they’d already seen plenty of absurdity in their short times on the job. In just his third month of fighting professionally, Bader competed for pocket change in a rainstorm on a pier in the Cayman Islands. Because the fights were held outdoors and the promoter cheaped out for a junky vinyl canvas, rainwater pooled up in-cage like a shallow creek.

“I went to go throw a leg kick and it looked like I was sliding into home plate,” Bader remembers. “Then they’d stop [the fight mid-round] and they’d come in with towels and they’d wipe it off, and you’d go again.” When Bader won by choking his foe unconscious with an early arm-triangle, he basically drowned the poor guy in a pool of his own filth.

Was it surreal? Sure. But not any more surreal than three weeks later when his next opponent injured himself backstage by whipping himself in the eye with his own ponytail.

If ever Bader needed a pre-fight confidence boost, the sight of that clown show certainly did the trick.

“It was just chaos back in those days,” says Bader, who was living a double life working a 9-to-5 job doing sales during his weekdays.

“And Tommy Morrison was on that card, the HIV-positive boxer. He was the main event. He was supposed to fight MMA, and he just basically changed it, wouldn’t come out until it was basically boxing with small gloves.”

That was the reality of regional MMA. The scene was still growing out of its lawless roots during the late aughts. It still felt as if almost anything was possible on any given night, so the excursion south of the border was simply supposed to be par for the course.

The promoter of SE Vale Tudo had sold the boys hard on what he framed as a dream event. He promised them a sold-out show. Tecate was supposedly set as a sponsor. The fighters were going to be treated like kings, he claimed. It wasn’t until weigh-in day arrived on the American side of the border — and the pre-event fighter meeting unfolded — that Bader and his buds started realizing they may have been sold a false bill of goods.

“I’ll never forget it,” says Dollaway. “I just remember [the promoter] standing up there like, ‘You fight until the end! If you don’t fight until you’re knocked out, I’ll dock your pay!’

“We’re like, ‘What?!’” says Bader. “That kind of rubbed you the wrong way a little bit, and you’re like, ‘Get out of here! Come on!’ But it’s different [on the regional circuit]. It’s just the Wild West. … You can do whatever you want. If they don’t want to pay you, what are you going to do?”

The plan, as it was laid out to them, went something like this: On the morning of the event, Bader, Dollaway, and Velasquez were to set out on foot from their hotel, hike across the Mexican border with all of their gear on their backs, then track down a beaten-up old bus a mile or so into the country which would take them to this alleged dream venue. None among the crew spoke a lick of Spanish, not even the Mexican-American Velasquez, so the trek proved to be a challenge in and of itself. And when they finally did find their way, it didn’t take long for the trio to start wondering what the hell they’d actually signed up for.

“When we pulled up, it looked like a prison basically,” says Bader.

“That’s when a lot of the guys were like, ‘Hey man...are we getting paid?!’”

That supposed dream venue? It turned out to be an abandoned bullfighting ring. There was no roof. The fighters were thrown into horse stalls to warm up among old feed and hay. And the ring itself? It was a sight. “We rolled in there and we saw this little ring that looked like somebody’s uncle built in 1985 for his kids to do WWE on,” says Bader. “There was like a three-ropes ring in there — which if people don’t know, three ropes, they don’t hold you in, especially for an MMA fight.”

As concerning as the ropes were, they were secondary to the biggest revelation of the day: The canvas. And that’s because there was no canvas at all.

“There was just a plywood that they painted red with, like, roll-on paint,” Dollaway remembers. “No medical staff whatsoever. So if something happened, the ring was hard as pavement basically — like they took a paint roller that you’d roll your wall in your house with and just painted red paint on it. You could see the splinters [sticking out] of the wood.”

“I remember vividly that C.B. and I were like, ‘Man, I’m glad we’re wrestlers, because if you get slammed on this plywood, it’s not going to be good,’” Bader says.

“But we didn’t know any better either. Going back now I’d be like: ‘We ain’t doing this.’”

By that point, the other subplot of the weekend — Velasquez’s opponent — had gone through its own myriad twists and turns.

Cain Velasquez
Cain Velasquez entered the UFC with just two fights of experience.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The reality check that inevitably greeted Velasquez’s potential foes in those early days of his career had already become a running joke within the crew. Velasquez made his MMA transition before both Bader and Dollaway, yet he owned — by far — the least professional fights among the group, and not for a lack of trying. “Cain went through like six opponents,” Dollaway remembers. “Guys would sign or agree to the fight, then look him up, then pull out. For this fight, he went through opponent after opponent after opponent. So then at the weigh-in, they were trying to find someone. This guy’s dad was like, ‘Yeah, my son will fight him!’ They negotiated, I don’t know what he was getting paid, it wasn’t much I believe, but it sounded like the dad was going to be taking the money.

“But then the son saw Cain and was like: ‘F*ck you, Dad! I’m out!!’

The saga wasn’t over though for the future UFC heavyweight champion. Far from it. “So this luchador, he was like a 170-pound luchador, then he said he’d fight him,” remembers Bader. “He’d already fought that night, and they took them in the back and they were going to redo his contract, whatever to fight Cain — and he heard these, like, cracking [noises] coming from the back. From the Thai pads.

“The guy saw Cain kicking Thai pads in the back and he was like, ‘Nope!! I’m out.’

Velasquez was the only one who didn’t compete that night.

In fairness, all of his opponents probably made the right call.

“I mean, can you blame them though?” Dollaway says with a laugh.

Fight night itself was a predictable disaster. “Sold-out” seemingly meant something different to this promoter — “There were probably seven people in this whole dang thing,” says Bader — and virtually every promise made to the ASU wrestlers turned out to be a lie. But they’d come with a purpose and so they executed. Bader even turned the unusual circumstances into an advantage.

“He picked his guy up and had his arm trapped — just slammed him right onto his head on that hard wood, knocked the dude out unconscious,” says Dollaway. “Then that was scary because there was no medical staff and Bader’s guy kind of went into convulsions a little bit. I was like, man...

Dollaway made it a clean sweep in the main event — fortunately for his opponent, without a slam — and the boys partied late into the night before fleeing back across the border with a story for the ages. Bader had red paint stains on his knees for at least a week.

All together they guess they made less than a grand.

“I probably got lead poisoning from that fight,” jokes Bader.

“It was an experience, to say the least,” says Dollaway. “I wouldn’t mind going back there just to see it again.”

As it turns out, the Nogales ordeal ended up being one of the last rides of anonymity for the group. It was also one of the final tipping points that pushed Velasquez’s head coach, AKA frontman Javier Mendez, to go straight to the source and approach UFC president Dana White with a proposition. Soon after the event Velasquez secured a private workout in front of the UFC brass. Naturally, he debuted in the octagon the following spring with just two fights of experience still lining his résumé. He became heavyweight champion less than three years later. That 170-pound luchador was indeed a smart man.

Bader and Dollaway, likewise, found their ways onto The Ultimate Fighter mere months after Mexico, with Bader winning his season and Dollaway finishing as a runner-up on his own.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Fourteen years later, the adventure remains a fun memory, even if it’s bizarre for the three husbands and fathers to look back on now. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” says Bader. “You learn so much just being able to go in there and compete in different places where you have no idea what’s going on. You go to a Bellator or UFC event, you know exactly what your schedule is. You go fight in Mexico, and they tell you to hop on a bus and go to a bullfighting ring and you’re like, ‘Sh*t, I guess we’re fighting a little bit too. Who knows if we’ll get paid? Hopefully we don’t get [kidnapped].

“Looking back at all the little rinky-dinky stuff that we did, it’s just kind of funny. But we had to do it because we had to take as many fights [as we could].”

Both Bader and Dollaway admit they miss those more naive days, at least a little. Just three college buddies with big dreams and not a care in the world.

“You’re never going to have those days back,” Dollaway says.

None of them knew how quickly things were about to change. And how could they? Bader certainly didn’t know he’d be headlining a Bellator show in his hometown 14 years later surrounded by gold, the one-time double champ in chase of another dance with two belts. He didn’t know that Velasquez would go on to become a legend in his own right, or that Dollaway would go on to rack up 21 appearances at the highest levels of the game.

“Fifteen years went by and it seemed more like five,” says Dollaway.

“A lot of great times,” Bader says. “And it happened fast.”

No, they were just kids back then. Young and crazy kids. All that other stuff was still ahead. All that other stuff would have to wait for a wild weekend in the Wild West.

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