Fight like a Devil: Inside Ryan Bader’s journey from ASU wrestling to Bellator champion

Former ASU wrestler Ryan Bader developed a passion for mixed martial arts in Tempe as a sophomore. “We had no idea what we were doing,” he recalls. (Photo by Damian Rios/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Fifteen years ago and fresh out of college, Ryan Bader sat in an office working the phones for a sales job and wondering if that’s all there was. Now, “Darth Bader” fights for a living. It’s a career switch he’s never regretted.

A former ASU wrestler and the current Bellator heavyweight champion, Bader faces Fedor Emelianenko Saturday at Bellator 290 in Los Angeles. This will be the second time the two fighters face off and the first event hosted by Bellator on CBS Network.

Bader has had a storied mixed martial arts career so far, gathering 30 wins to only seven losses. He spent eight years in the UFC facing off against opponents such as Jon Jones, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Tito Ortiz. Bader then took on a new challenge in Bellator and rose to the occasion swiftly, becoming the competition’s first two-belt champion, a feat that took him less than two years to achieve.

It’s been a wild ride for Bader, who still has fresh memories of that office job and its mind-numbing doldrums.

“Seven months into the job my manager was kind of like saying, ‘Hey, you’re doing a great job, you know, if you work hard and do all this, you can become the Trainee Manager.’ It was like a big prize for him.” Bader said. “At that moment, I was like, this is kind of what I have to look forward to for the rest of my life, and it just wasn’t me.”

Bellator heavyweight champion Ryan Bader will defend his title belt against Fedor Emelianenko this Saturday at Bellator 290. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

Bellator heavyweight champion Ryan Bader will defend his title belt against Fedor Emelianenko this Saturday at Bellator 290. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

From there, the 22-year-old Bader decided to go all in on his MMA dream because if he didn’t, he would regret it for the rest of his life.

“I didn’t want to look back and be that bitter old man who says I could have done that or I would have been great at that,” Bader said. “I said to myself, ‘You know what, I’m gonna go and pursue this … if it doesn’t work out, at least I can say I did it, and that I tried with no regrets.’ So that’s what I did.”

It’s safe to say that betting on himself paid off – and paid off big.

Bader hails from Reno, Nevada, and was a two-sport athlete growing up. His expertise was always wrestling, where he was a two-time state champion at Robert McQueen High School in Reno, but he also had a love for football. He was a two-time captain of the football team and earned the 2001 Nevada High School Defensive Player of the Year award.

Bader’s parents, Mark and Anita, were very supportive of his athletic endeavors throughout his childhood, taking him to wrestling tournaments every weekend around Nevada and California. Despite all the success in football, wrestling was always his first priority, and the ASU wrestling program led by former coach Thom Ortiz caught wind of his achievements.

“I had a buddy that lived in Reno, and he heard that ASU was recruiting Bader,” Ortiz said. “He said to me that his (Bader) house is half an hour from him, that I could fly in, and that he’ll take me to his house. He picked me up and took me to Ryan’s parent’s home.”

Ortiz said the reason he thinks Bader was successful growing up was because of how much his parents cared about his success. Nevertheless, ASU wasn’t the only school keeping its eye on the young state-champion wrestler.

Bader was first recruited by a Pac-12 (then Pac-10) rival, the University of Oregon. He liked the idea of wrestling for the Ducks, but nothing stood out except for the facilities and he didn’t know if it would be a good fit.

From fighting in a barn in Globe, Arizona, to headlining Saturday's Bellator 290, Ryan Bader paid his dues to become heavyweight champion. (Photo by Damian Rios/Cronkite News)

From fighting in a barn in Globe, Arizona, to headlining Saturday’s Bellator 290, Ryan Bader paid his dues to become heavyweight champion. (Photo by Damian Rios/Cronkite News)

Bader then went on a recruiting trip to ASU. He loved it at first sight and knew immediately he wanted to wrestle for the Sun Devils. Bader joined an ASU wrestling team with two future UFC fighters, Cain Velaquez and CB Dolloway, two men that he also still calls friends to this day.

After redshirting his freshman year, Bader wrestled all four eligible years as a Sun Devil, where he became a two-time All-American and went on to win three Pac-12 championships.

Ortiz recalls a moment when Bader in his freshman year clinched the Pac-10 team title for the Sun Devils, the first of Ortiz’s reign, by defeating Boise State wrestler K.C Walsh, 2-1. The best part for Ortiz was that Bader clinched the title in Boise.

During his time in Tempe, Bader also picked up his love for MMA.

“MMA came onto the scene around my sophomore and junior year of college,” Bader said. “We just started playing around with jiu-jitsu while cutting weight, but we had no idea what we were doing.”

During Bader’s senior year, he and Dolloway were asked by an up-and-coming MMA fighter, Jesse Forbes, to help him out with his wrestling at an MMA gym. Forbes was preparing to be on the third season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” a TV show that combined reality television with MMA.

The popular show features several professional MMA fighters living together under one roof as they train and compete against each other for a prized six-figure contract with the UFC. The show is still running and aired its 30th season a few months ago.

After graduating from ASU in 2006 and deciding that sales weren’t for him, Bader started his MMA journey at Arizona Combat Sports in Tempe. Once he had his first fight, he was immediately hooked. His family was also on board, as they’ve been his entire career.

“My grandma would call me asking, “What’re you doing now?” Bader said. “A year later, she’s sending me (clips of) fights and stuff like that, supporting me. Everybody was pretty supportive, and I think once they kind of understand the sport, everything gets a little easier. But I mean, my mom still can’t really watch, and my wife barely watches. She’s there, but she’s always pacing around.”

At the beginning of his career, Bader said he was fighting for only a couple hundred bucks at a time, and he expected that. His first few fights brought him to multiple miscellaneous locations. He remembers fighting in a barn in Globe, Arizona, then fighting on an Indian Reservation, then in Mexico. For him, it was a means to an end.

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“You’re fighting for peanuts,” Bader said. “I came in knowing that, I’m gonna have to pay our dues to get to where I want to go.”

After winning most of those fights, Bader was invited to appear on the eighth installment of “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2008 and later won the whole competition, earning his contract to fight in the UFC.

Fifteen years and 38 fights later, the now 39-year-old is the main event on Bellator’s first card on a major network ever this Saturday.

The last time Bader and Emelianenko went head-to-head, “Darth” knocked his opponent out in 35 seconds with a huge overhand left. However, for this rematch, which is also Emelianenko’s last fight, Bader doesn’t expect the same.

“Every fight is a new fight,” Bader said. “I always think I’m gonna go out there and fight 25 minutes hard and if I don’t, and I can stop it before then, great.”

Whether it’s 35 seconds or 25 minutes hard, win or lose, Bader will always bet on himself with no regrets about the path he chose to take.

“For me, it’s all about competing, it’s not about fighting,” Bader said. “It was never about trying to hit somebody or anything like that. It’s to go out there and win, something that both men work towards that one night to compete, may the best man win.”

Vincent Deangelis VIN-sint dee-ANN-jeh-lis
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Vincent Deangelis expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Deangelis reports for The State Press.

Damian Rios DAY-mee-un REE-os
News Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Damian Rios expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor of arts in sports journalism. Rios is also a Sponsorship Scout for SponsorUnited, and previously interned with the Varsity Sports Radio Show last fall.