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Frustrated with UFC, Ryan Bader bolted to Bellator, became a champion and hasn't looked back

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

When Ryan Bader faced Jon Jones on Feb. 5, 2011, at UFC 126, not only was it a match between two of the light heavyweight division’s most promising prospects, but it carried with it a title shot.

Rashad Evans had to pull out of a title bout with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua that was set for UFC 128 six weeks later, and the UFC planned to give the winner of Bader-Jones the shot against Rua.

Bader was 12-0 and had won “The Ultimate Fighter,” as he went into the bout with Jones. Jones was 11-1 and the only loss was a mistakenly applied disqualification when he was on the verge of a finish.

Jones submitted Bader with a guillotine and went on to become widely regarded as the greatest fighter in MMA history.

Bader, though, never sniffed a title shot again in the UFC. He fought 14 more times in the promotion, but never for the title.

“That was frustrating,” Bader told Yahoo Sports. “There was a point where I had at least four or five wins in a row and they gave [the title shot] to Alexander Gustafsson off a knockout loss. That was a point where I said, ‘If I’m not going to get it now, I’m just going to stop worrying about it and take these fights one at a time. [A title shot] would just be icing on the cake.’ ”

Ryan Bader in action against Phil Davis in a mixed martial arts bout for the light heavyweight title at Bellator 180 on Saturday, June 24, 2017, in New York. Bader won via decision to win the title. (AP Photo)

Bader went 10-4 in the UFC after losing to Jones, but bolted to Bellator once his contract expired. He won the light heavyweight title in his Bellator debut, besting Phil Davis at Madison Square Garden, then successfully defended it on Nov. 3 when he stopped Linton Vassell at Bellator 186.

That win earned him a shot into Bellator president Scott Coker’s Heavyweight Grand Prix. He’ll fight Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal on Saturday at the SAP Center in San Jose, California, on the Paramount Network, with a spot in the semifinals against Matt Mitrione on the line.

Though both Bader and Lawal are natural light heavyweights, the winner of this fight was seen by many as a potential finalist. Bader knows his side of the bracket was difficult and has much respect for Lawal as an opponent.

“He’s a fellow wrestler, he boxes well and he uses his wrestling well,” Bader said of Lawal. “I feel I have more tools and I feel I bring more to the cage, mixed martial arts-wise. My cardio is on point and I’m in the prime of my career. I’ve been active. He hasn’t fought in over a year. His last fight was a close win over Rampage [Jackson on March 31, 2017] and I’ve won the title and defended the title in that time span.”

When Bader’s UFC contract expired, he told Coker he was open to fighting at both heavyweight and light heavyweight.

That presents the situation that he could become a simultaneous two-division champion. Conor McGregor held two UFC belts at the same time, but never defended the featherweight belt and it was stripped from him.

It’s a tough thing to do, but Bader said his initial thought is that if he wins, he’ll try to keep both and defend both belts.

“I’ll have to dive deeper into it when the time comes, but right now, I’m saying I’m going to defend both at least once,” Bader said. “We’ll see where we’re at when that comes. There might be a more intriguing fight at heavyweight that comes up and they’ll say, ‘Well, we’ve held this light heavyweight belt up forever and so we’ll do an interim [title fight].’ So we’ll see what happens when that time comes, but right now, I plan on doing both.”

First, though, is getting past Lawal and then Mitrione and then the winner of the Fedor Emelianenko-Chael Sonnen semifinal match.

Regardless of how it goes, Bader is certain of one thing: He’s never going to get frustrated by a lack of a championship opportunity again. There may be too many defenses to make if he wins both belts, but his days of being disappointed by never getting to fight for a title are long over.

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