Ryan Bader settling into life as Bellator’s ‘double champ,’ plans to define his legacy by defending both belts

Ryan Bader already sits in rarefied air in the history of MMA after becoming one of only a few fighters to ever hold two division titles simultaneously in a major promotion.

The former NCAA All-American wrestler wasted no time winning the Bellator light heavyweight title after signing with the promotion following a long stint with the UFC. Then between 2018 and the start of 2019, Bader dominated the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix to win his second title while defeating legendary former PRIDE champion Fedor Emelianenko.

He stuck around heavyweight for an additional title defense against Cheick Kongo, but now for the first time in almost three years, Bader returns to light heavyweight for a showdown with Russian contender Vadim Nemkov on Friday night at Bellator 244.

Bader understands that becoming a two-division champion is difficult enough but defending both belts is an even rarer feat. That said, he’s not letting the pressure of being the “double champ” get to him ahead of his next title defense.

“I want to keep defending the light heavyweight title. I want to defend the heavyweight title,” Bader told MMA Fighting. “That’s something I want to leave a legacy on. But on the flipside of it, it’s almost like there’s no pressure for me when I think about it. I think about these new guys coming in like Nemkov. This is his shot. He wants to get a title. I’ve been there, done that. I have two.

“It’s almost like there’s way less pressure on myself. I’ve been there, done that. I walk out there relaxed like it’s just another fight. I don’t even think about it really. That’s when I fight my best. The pressure’s all on the other side.”

Bouncing back and forth between two divisions has never been easy, especially for the best fighters in the world when competing against other top ranked opposition.

For Bader, he’s enjoyed not cutting weight while competing at heavyweight but after a lifetime spent in the wrestling room, he’s not too worried about cutting back down to 205 pounds as he seeks to retain his light heavyweight title this weekend.

“With heavyweight, I’m kind of in a perfect spot,” Bader explained. “I’m not a guy who walks around at 240, 245 [pounds]. I’m 230, 235. That being said, I thought I was fighting heavyweight. I thought I was fighting [Cheick] Kongo until about four and a half weeks, five weeks out. I was like guys I need to know what weight I’m fighting because I either need to go up from 230 to 235 or 237 or I try to go down and hit 220 before I leave. Finally it was kind of like we’re going at 205.

“I don’t think I need to pick a weight class. I feel like I’m that perfect in between. I have the strength, I have the power to fight at heavyweight and I can drop down to 205. This is what 205ers walk around at anyways. Barring everything goes well with this fight, I would like to stay at 205 again for my next one.”

Nemkov is arguably the toughest challenge Bader has faced at 205 pounds since first arriving in Bellator. The Russian has won six straight fights including four bouts in Bellator, with victories over former champions Phil Davis and Liam McGeary already on his resume.

Bader has been impressed by Nemkov and he believes this will most certainly be the stiffest test of his career.

“He’s very talented. He brings the fight to his opponents,” Bader said about Nemkov. “That being said, when I first came in here, I fought nothing but the best my whole career. Coming in here and these guys with a lot of hype like Linton Vassell, you watch them and you’re like this guy is good. Then you get in there and I feel like I’m on another level when I get my hands on them. When it goes to deeper waters, I just feel like I’m head and shoulders above some of these guys. Who knows, it might be the same with Nemkov.

“He’s never been in a five-round fight. He’s actually quit in the corner against Jiri [Prochazka]. He gets tired, maybe because he comes out so fast. This is a five round fight. He’s barely went to three and when he’s gone to three, he’s been exhausted, let alone a five-round fight.”

If all goes well on Friday, Bader is open to whatever Bellator wants for him next, although ideally he prefers the idea of sticking around at light heavyweight for at least one more fight.

Being absent from the division since 2017 has allowed the Viacom-owned promotion to build up the ranks including the recent addition of former UFC contender Corey Anderson as well as past opponent Lyoto Machida.

“At the end of the day, I’ll take some good matchups and bounce back and forth,” Bader said. “But while I’m at 205 and I haven’t been back for a while, Bellator wanted me to do the Grand Prix and then defend the belt after. I’ve been doing whatever they tell me. I do kind of want to stay at 205 for another fight while I’m down there.

“My body is primed for that weight. Cause I made that cut and just fought Nemkov. There’s some potential big fights. I’d love to get in there with [Lyoto] Machida at 205 and run that one back. At the same time, I’m open to good matchups and good fights.”