On Spike TV next Saturday at Bellator 180, Ryan Bader will at long last get his title shot. No, it’s not in the UFC, where the light heavyweight got his start after winning The Ultimate Fighter. Yet maybe that doesn’t matter, considering that the state of the UFC light heavyweight division has quickly allowed rival Bellator MMA to play catch up.
It might even be extra special, since the fight is at the fabled Madison Squared Garden in New York, against another top light heavyweight, Phil Davis. Bader has fought the Bellator champion once before, back in the UFC. That night, Bader had his hand raised as the better man. Yet it was a close fight that ended in a split decision.
Over two years have passed since that January night at UFC on FOX 14 in 2015. Phil Davis jumped ship first, then earlier this year, Bader followed suit. Originally, he was booked into a title eliminator with “King” Mo Lawal at Bellator 180, airing immediately prior to the Bellator NYC Pay-per-View. Then Lawal went down to injury. The name to step up and fill in? None other than Mr. Wonderful himself, Davis, who had captured the title at Bellator 163 in November.
So does this bout come with any sense of vindication for Bader, who was always the bridesmaid back in the UFC?
“It’s just any other fight, really” Bader (22–5) explained at today’s Bellator NYC press call. “After my last loss, I kinda had to look within, kinda had to see what was going on as far as what I needed to do in the future, and one was just taking it light and not putting a bunch of pressure on myself, having fun out there, keeping it light, through training camp, the week of, in the locker room” he explained. In short, the idea seems simple: no pressure. “We’re having fun going out there, and that’s when I fight the best. Last two fights have been stoppages over tough guys and it’s just a shift in my mentality, so this fight is no different.”
Yet the title is there, tantalizing, hanging in the balance. Does that not play a role in Bader’s mindset?
“Yes I’m going to go out there and win the belt and all that, but I’m not even looking at the belt right now” said the challenger. “I’m looking to go out there and win, win this fight. So there’s no added pressure.” Still, he’s keenly aware of the fact that a title shot has remained just out of reach over the years. “That’s one thing that has eluded me throughout my mixed martial arts career. I went right into the UFC, and never got a chance to fight for the belt. So here’s my opportunity, and I’m going to make the best of it.”
Bellator 180 takes place June 24 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It airs live on Spike TV immediately prior to the Bellator NYC Pay-per-View portion of the event.