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Can Ryan Bader still be a contender?



bader-japanUp until this past weekend, Ryan Bader was doing pretty well. In fact, between December of 2013 and October 2015 he never lost more than a round over a five fight winning streak; in the looming absence that was Jon Jones’ suspension, you could say Ryan Bader soared.

That was, of course, before former welterweight (hard to believe) Anthony “Rumble” Johnson nearly caved the former ASU wrestler’s skull in after a mere 86 seconds. It came as little surprise as many outlets had penciled Johnson in as the most likely victor in the weeks leading up to the bout. The scrap was a reminder on multiple fronts for both the merits of “Rumble” Johnson’s terrifying power and Ryan Bader’s disturbing inconsistency when it comes to must-win type scenarios.

We know, perhaps now more than ever, Anthony Johnson can end people. Whether it’s a shin bone across your neck or a cracking right hand while you lay prostrated on the canvas, “Rumble” knows how to find your “off” switch. In 17 Octagon appearances he’s managed to finish 10 of his opponents, also picking up seven post-fight bonuses while doing so. In that sense he was a polarizing figure for Bader to compete against.

Though undefeated over the last two years, Bader hasn’t managed to finish a fight since choking Vladimir Matyushenko out back in 2013. That’s part of the reason why, despite his winning streak, this past weekend’s main event had title implications for one fighter and not the other. No one was clamoring for “Darth” to face the winner of Jones and Daniel Cormier, especially not after five straight decision victories. His performance against “Rumble” only cemented his position as a truly “middle of the pack” fighter in the crowded light heavyweight division.

But for an athlete that went undefeated the first three years of his career, capped by a winning performance in season 8 of “The Ultimate Fighter”, Bader has come up short nearly every time he needed a win. In what would decide who the new face of the division would be back in 2011, he was choked out by Jones; shortly after he was embarrassed by an aged Tito Ortiz in the same fashion. Since then, whether in a title eliminator or a number one contender fight, Bader hasn’t been able to find his rhythm; his knockout losses to Lyoto Machida, Glover Teixeira, and now Johnson have only further driven this point home.

Now, coming off arguably his worst showing, Bader has only the return of “Bones” Jones to look forward to. If the former champ manages to reclaim his belt from Cormier and continue his reign of terror over the division, Bader might have a chance to get back in there, but if he does it will be out of the UFC’s desperation; a grim acknowledgement that Jones truly has no one left to beat up.

Instead, given his track record against the best of the division, Bader should turn his aspirations towards the weight room. Already a hulking figure for the 205lb. division, Bader could find new life in the heavyweight end of the pool. With a much thinner division, mostly full of aging competitors or green neophytes, Bader could make a splash. His wrestling is better than most, and his smaller frame would give him a marked speed advantage among the big men.

That said, “Darth” isn’t known for his power, and when standing toe-to-toe with giants like Ben Rothwell, fans might be forced to realize why we have weight classes in the first place. Either way, there’s no escaping the return of Jon Jones, who has already publicly announced his intention to move up to heavyweight after getting the belt back he never lost.

It all adds up to a tough spot for Ryan Bader to be in as a 32-year-old professional athlete. Time is no longer on his side as it was back when he first came into the UFC at only 25 years young, and his body is surely feeling the effects of a lifetime spent in the wrestling room and the Octagon. While there’s no shame in being a “gate keeper”, that’s probably the last thing Bader wants attached to his name.

So where he goes now remains a mystery; he’s good enough to beat anyone outside of the top five in his neighboring divisions, but his days as a light heavyweight contender may well be behind him.  

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