ByDan Shapiro, writer at
Senior Editor, Champions
Dan Shapiro

NEW YORK -- When it comes to ’s second life at Bellator MMA, literally nothing is off the table.

In Manhattan to promote his upcoming title tilt against light heavyweight champion at Madison Square Garden, Bader made no illusion about his desire for big-time fights beyond Bellator 180. And while Bader anticipates future bouts against the best competition the promotion has to offer, he’s also aware that Bellator’s unpredictable matchmaking could lead to a number of obscure bookings past June 24.

“If you look at my resume, I fought legends of the sport,” comments Bader, who makes his Bellator debut after 20 fights in the UFC. “Wanderlei … who knows, a guy like that goes out there, beats [Chael] Sonnen and can be next in line … [Bellator] wants to put on big fights, and I welcome that. So, it could be somebody like Wanderlei Silva, or someone like that. It’s exciting.”

Bader, 34, knows a thing about fighting MMA legends. With bouts against former UFC champions like , Tito Ortiz, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Lyoto Machida, and Rashad Evans under his belt, Bader became a top-10 light heavyweight staple in the Octagon. However, the opportunity to fight for a major MMA title always eluded him, until now.

Signing with Bellator in March 2017, Bader was initially set to face Muhammed Lawal on the card. But after “King Mo” was forced to pull out of the fight due to injury, Bellator upgraded Bader to an immediate title shot. Making matters even better, his first chance to collect a serious piece of MMA hardware comes against Davis, a man he’s already beaten in mixed martial arts.

“It’s the best of both worlds … [it] couldn’t have gotten any better, to get to win the title in Madison Square Garden in front of friends and family,” states Bader, who isn’t relying on his past successes against Davis. “You can’t bring that win into your fight. What you can bring is being in there, knowing how strong, fast, their attributes, what they’re good at, what they’re not good at, that kind of stuff. That’s the biggest thing. I can’t say 'I already beat you so I win this fight.' We gotta go in there, do it again.”

With a rivalry dating back to their NCAA Division-I collegiate wrestling days, Bader and Davis represent Bellator’s new crop of imported talent that defected from the UFC, free agents in search of new pastures. And while Davis once bested Bader on the wrestling mats while they were still in university, the evolution of both fighters is significant.

No longer just a wrestling powerhouse, Bader has come a long way since his days on , finishing his last two opponents by KO/TKO. Making notable improvements in his striking game under a new coaching staff during the last seven months, “Darth” is prepared for an even better version of Davis this time around, although he’s not convinced “Mr. Wonderful” has grown at the same rate.

“I’m a totally different fighter than I was then, and he may be too, and I’m prepared for that, even though I think he does a lot of the same stuff and is the same fighter. I feel like [I’ve] grown way more than he has,” adds Bader. “I really take a focus on my technique and getting better with my techniques and drilling ... I got a new coaching staff right before the Nogueira fight, so the last six, seven months, I feel like I’ve grown more in that seven months than the previous five years.”

Still, Bader understands that Davis is a very real threat. It is mixed martial arts after all, where anything can happen in a flash. Fortunately, Bader won’t have to rush once he enters the cage.

Building upon their last bout, which Bader took by split decision, the pair of veterans are slated for a 25-minute contest this time around, as is the norm for MMA title fights. Many expect the additional 10 minutes of action to play a major part in the rematch, and Bader agrees.

“I think it works out to my advantage,” explains Bader. “Last fight, he was kind of getting desperate and flailing takedowns at me ... I just feel like I’m ready to push through that. I’ve been there before against a big awkward guy in Ovince St. Preux, so for me, I welcome that. I’m ready for anything. I’m ready to go in there and finish him right away and I’m ready to go five rounds.”

Ryan Bader takes on Phil Davis in the Bellator 180 main event, which airs on Spike TV prior to the pay-per-view card.

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