When Ryan Bader lost his Bellator MMA light heavyweight championship to Vadim Nemkov last August, he felt sorrow and deep disappointment. The first emotion comes with the territory of losing your place at the top of the mountain. The second emotion was self-directed letdown. On his way to a second-round TKO defeat, Bader had spent an uncharacteristic amount of time during the fight not moving forward, his usual path to success.
"That was not me," Bader, who is at his best when pressuring his opponent, told ESPN this week. "But it is what it is. You've got to show up on the night of the fight."
Tempering his heavy heart, however, was an odd feeling of lightness. Bader's fighting life suddenly was simplified. Bellator's first two-division champion still ruled at heavyweight, after all, and Bader found himself warming to the idea of making that weight class his sole focus.
Bader had competed at 205 pounds for all but four of his 34 fights in a pro career going back a dozen years. But at age 37, weight cuts had gotten old. Even prior to MMA, he'd sweated off pounds for all of his athletic life as a collegiate and high school wrestler. And now he was questioning what his future held, wondering: What's to be gained by going small, anyway?
"I feel just as strong as the heavyweights," Bader reasoned, "and I feel super fast in the cage with them. I really haven't got hit even once in my heavyweight fights, and that's appealing to me. I thought maybe I'd stick to heavyweight."
Then the phone rang, and Bader's newly mapped out career trajectory took an abrupt U-turn.
Bellator, which had a Featherweight World Grand Prix in progress, was putting together a light heavyweight tournament next. Was the former champ interested? Yes, he was.
Bader will kick off the eight-man Bellator Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix on Friday night in a quarterfinal against former UFC champion Lyoto Machida. It's the main event of Bellator 256 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, and it's right where Bader wants to be. The tournament format has renewed his excitement for a run at 205 pounds.
"It's awesome, unexpectedly awesome," Bader said. "I had been planning on defending the heavyweight title in early March, but then this opportunity came along, and I just couldn't say no. This is what brought me to Bellator -- the chance to do cool stuff like tournaments."
It makes sense that that was what drew him back in. It was a tournament that had made the native of Reno, Nevada, a double champion in the first place. On Jan. 26, 2019, Bader, who at the time reigned at light heavyweight, knocked out Russian legend Fedor Emelianenko in just 35 seconds in the final of the Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix to earn the title in a second division. Earlier in that tourney, he had defeated Muhammed Lawal and Matt Mitrione.
To win back the light heavyweight title, Bader will have to navigate a bracket that includes Machida, Nemkov, former champ Phil Davis as well as new signees Corey Anderson, Anthony "Rumble" Johnson and Yoel Romero.
It was the arrival of those last three former UFC contenders, in fact, that gave birth to this Grand Prix.
"This is the greatest light heavyweight division on the planet, and it's even greater now than it was six months ago," Bellator CEO Scott Coker told reporters in February. "How could we not do this tournament?"
Taking that urgency a step further, Coker matched up his new power couple -- Rumble and Romero -- in the opening round rather than simply hoping for that pairing to fall into place later in the bracket. Coker has been around MMA long enough to have seen many a dream matchup not end up happening.
"Things change quickly," he said. "When the fight is there in this sport, you've got to do it."
Johnson and Romero will close out the quarterfinals May 7. The other two fights -- Nemkov vs. Davis and Anderson vs. Turkmenistan fighter Dovletdzhan Yagshimuradov -- will take place on April 16.
Half of the Grand Prix field is in ESPN's divisional rankings. Anderson is No. 6 at light heavyweight, followed by Nemkov (No. 7) and Bader (No. 8). Romero is ranked fourth at middleweight. Bader is No. 9 at heavyweight.
Despite all of that rankings positioning in a UFC-centric sport, Bader doesn't get too caught up in debating how Bellator's 205-pound division stacks up. Prior to joining Bellator in 2017, he fought in the UFC for nearly a decade. He understands the terrain well enough to know there is no definitive answer to who's best and there never will be.
"People like to talk about that stuff, but we'll never know because there's never going to be a cross-promotional fight," Bader said. "But I'll say this: Any one of us in this tournament can defeat the UFC champion on a given night. Me, Corey Anderson, Anthony Johnson, Phil Davis -- when we left the UFC, each one of us was in the top three. And one of the only guys ranked above us was Jon Jones, one of the greatest fighters of all time -- and now he's left the UFC's 205 division as well. People have to respect Bellator's light heavyweight division."
This tournament is a great spotlight for the 205-pounders, but how does it affect the heavyweight division? Bellator is still in the process of sorting that out. Bader was expecting to defend his belt in March against Timothy Johnson, winner of four in a row. That fight did not materialize once the light heavyweight tournament was booked, and a Bellator spokesman told ESPN this week that there instead will be an interim heavyweight title fight if Bader advances in the tournament and is tied up at 205 pounds until the fall.
That sounds fine to the champ. "It'd just bring more hype to my next heavyweight fight -- two belts on the line," Bader said.
But that's about all of the energy Bader will devote to a heavyweight discussion at this time. He's not even looking ahead in the light heavyweight tournament bracket, not with the man standing right in front of Bader owning a knockout victory over him. Then again, Bader doesn't dwell on a loss to Machida that happened nine years ago.
"I was just a wrestler back then. I really didn't know what I was doing on my feet," Bader said of the 2012 UFC bout. "You go in there with one of the better strikers, a guy who'd been very puzzling for a lot of people, and bad stuff happens."
Machida is 42 now and has lost two fights in a row. But both defeats came by split decision, and prior to the skid the Brazilian karate technician had won four straight, including his final two UFC fights before the 2018 move to Bellator.
So Bader is not allowing his focus to drift beyond Friday. If anything, he's looking backward -- not to that first Machida fight nearly a decade ago, but just a couple of years back to his first Bellator grand prix experience.
"One thing I took from that heavyweight tournament was, don't stress about the big picture," Bader said. "'One fight at a time' is kind of cliche, but that's how you have to approach this. It's fun for fans to imagine what matchups might be ahead in the Grand Prix, but for us fighters, it's important to compartmentalize. Take care of every minute of every fight, and you're gonna get your hand raised and a belt put around your waist.
"For me to get my belt back and again be a two-division champ by getting past a stacked field like this would be sweet. Winning a second grand prix -- it doesn't get much bigger than that."