It’s easy to feel sorry for a guy like Ryan Bader.
OK—scratch that—more accurately, I suspect it’s easy for fight fans to feel absolutely nothing for a guy like Bader.
As he approaches his Saturday showdown with Ovince Saint Preux at UFC Fight Night 47, the former The Ultimate Fighter winner is likely viewed by most as an athlete whose best days have come and gone without him ever reaching his full potential.
We’ve already seen Bader tested against the best in his division and come up wanting. At 31 years old and 15 fights into his UFC career, he’s a fully known commodity—eternally kicking around the outskirts of the 205-pound top 10, with a fleet of A-listers like Alexander Gustafsson, Daniel Cormier and Anthony Johnson between him and anything resembling top contender status.
He's still regarded as a viable member of the UFC's roster, but nobody's going to get overly excited about him. At this point, it's tempting to cast him merely as a measuring stick for up-and-comers.
Any discussion of the light heavyweight pecking order—and we’ve been having a lot of those lately—casts Bader as an afterthought. An also-ran. A non-factor.
Honestly, that seems a bit unfair. It’s pretty easy to make the case that at this stage in his fighting life, Bader is being short-changed, unjustly overlooked and underestimated.
As of this writing, he’s going off as a slight favorite over St. Preux, in a fight met by widespread bemusement when it was announced as the main event of the Octagon’s first ever trip to Maine. With Gray Maynard vs. Ross Pearson slotted as the co-main event and a potential flyweight No. 1 contender's bout relegated to the undercard, a scrap between two relatively off-the-radar light heavyweights seemed an odd and borderline desperate pick for top billing.
But that’s more of a commentary on the UFC’s unyielding live event schedule than a judgment of Bader or OSP. Truth is, this is a fine fight, though admittedly one that lacks the panache we’ve come to expect from “main event” contests.
St. Preux is riding a five-fight win streak—and is 13-1 dating back to Feb. 2010—but so far hasn’t been able to distinguish himself from the 205-pound pack. His last two fights have been pay-per-view curtain jerkers. In strict narrative terms, it would probably be most interesting for the division if he beats Bader and establishes himself as a legit player for the second half of the year and beyond.
Unfortunately, that might be a bit more of a long shot than the odds indicate.
Despite the fact Bader is largely regarded as lost property, he amounts to an enormous step up in competition for St. Preux. Though the stink of a shocking 2011 loss to Tito Ortiz has never quite dissipated, he’s earned his status as more than just a UFC gatekeeper, with wins over the likes of former UFC champ Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Strikeforce titlist Rafael Cavalcante.
It bears repeating that, besides that fluky first-round choke-out by Ortiz at UFC 132, Bader has actually been pretty good. His other three career losses (he’s 17-4 overall) have come at the hands of Jon Jones, Lyoto Machida and Glover Teixeira.
Hard to fault him for any of those, especially considering he looked on the verge of stopping Teixeira in Sept. 2013 before a careless mistake left him on the wrong end of one of the Brazilian’s powerful punching combinations. Teixeira used the victory to springboard into a title shot against Jones at UFC 172.
So while Bader hasn’t ever lived up to what we imagined might be possible for him when he won TUF Season 8, he shouldn’t be totally discounted as a potential future contender. He still has a few years left in his athletic prime, and while he’s not going to unseat Jones or Cormier from the top of the charts, he certainly still has the ability to be among the high-level players.
If Bader takes care of OSP this weekend, he should creep up near the top five, and a well-placed call-out of another light heavyweight luminary—Johnson and Gustafsson suddenly seem in need of engagements—could bring him back to relevance in a hurry.
He'll have won three straight and six of his last eight. He could end the year looking a lot less like a guy who needs our sympathy.