Lil Nog presents big test for Bader
Ryan Bader is asked the experience question, and he gives it the sort of polite and level-headed consideration that might seem surprising coming from a 27-year-old whose job it is to pummel those who challenge him.
He is properly respectful of Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, his opponent in Saturday's UFC 119 co-main event at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and he acknowledges the Brazilian's lengthier résumé. He's aware of the perception of an experience gap. And then he knocks down and chokes out the notion the way you'd expect him to.
"I'm not fighting his past opponents, and he's not fighting mine," said Bader, who is undefeated (11-0) as a mixed martial artist but has half as many fights under his belt as Nogueira (19-3). "At the end of the day, when we step into the Octagon, it's all about here and now. I know he's been fighting MMA for a long time, but don't forget: I've been wrestling forever. I've been training my whole life."
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And it is hard to overlook Bader's athletic credentials: Growing up in Reno, Nev., he was a highly decorated football player and two-time state wrestling champion, and later went on to twice earn Division I All-America honors at Arizona State. Bader, who was the light heavyweight winner of "The Ultimate Fighter" Season 8, has trained and sparred extensively with a sturdy group of former Sun Devils wrestlers that includes MMA up-and-comers Cain Velasquez, C.B. Dollaway and Aaron Simpson.
But a quick glance at any respectable pound-for-pound list shows that the one-dimensional title contender is a dying breed in the sport.
Does Bader have the requisite reps inside the Octagon and breadth of skills, beyond his wrestling pedigree, to handle an old pro like Nogueira?
"To me, for a fighter to truly be successful, you need to be training, which [Bader] is doing, and you need to have the passion for it, which I think he has," said Kenny Florian, a UFC lightweight contender and analyst for ESPN's "MMA Live." "But the other thing is, does he have the master coaching? And I'm not sure he does. I don't know what people he has around him right now to really take his striking game and his jiu-jitsu game to the next level."
The thought seemed to cross Bader's mind when he (along with Dollaway and Simpson) parted ways with Arizona Combat Sports in March to hook up with Lions Den Scottsdale. Bader credits ACS with helping get his career off the ground but says he had "hit a plateau" and needed a change. His crew of training partners still looks much the same, but he's quick to cite his Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu coaching at Lions Den when discussing his growth as a fighter since the switch.
Those are important considerations at this critical stage for Bader, who cemented his status as a near-future contender with a knockout of Keith Jardine at UFC 110 in February. The bout was one of his first, Bader says, that he wasn't fighting "with blinders on" and was fully comfortable inside the Octagon. Something clicked; he let his training do the work, and he not only survived three rounds with a still-formidable vet but also crumbled him in the third round.
That power is Bader's trademark. It shines through in his wrestling, often allowing him to control the action around the cage. And his heavy hands are potential fight-enders in stand-up situations and anytime he can gain top control.
But Nogueira likely is the most well-rounded fighter Bader has faced to date. His reach and sharp boxing skills could frustrate Bader on the feet and influence him to take the fight to familiar territory: the mat.
Nogueira also is a submission whiz who, despite being at a general disadvantage in grappling situations in this matchup, will pose a serious threat if Bader goes to the ground and makes a tactical mistake.
"This is the kind of fight where it starts to get interesting, where we get to see where his skill set lies, besides just wrestling," Florian said of Bader. "I think he needs to go on the inside where he can really utilize that power to land some heavy strikes, and at the end of the round look for those takedowns and get Nogueira up against the fence. But he needs to be a little bit more conservative on the ground."
For his part, Bader is willing -- and seems confident that he's able -- to let the fight take him in any direction.
"I'll go in there and try to box," he said. "If I'm winning that, great, I'll keep it on the feet. If not, I'll take it to the ground where I can go to my wrestling.
"He has great jiu-jitsu, great boxing and power," Bader said of Nogueira. "I need to try to neutralize him with my wrestling, get in there and blast him with some heavy shots. I think I match up pretty well with him."
He claims to have no specific game plan, but Bader would be foolish not to look for a tip or two from Nogueira's last fight -- a sketchy split-decision victory over Jason Brilz, an unspectacular wrestler who gave "Minotoro" fits for three rounds.
If Bader can take some cues from Brilz, adapt his own style to this fight and demonstrate he has become as mentally agile as he is devastatingly powerful, it won't be long before folks are talking about his edge over less-experienced foes. But he's not thinking about much beyond Saturday.
"My ultimate goal is to win a championship," Bader said. "I'm not here to be mediocre. I'm not here to be on TV once in a while. But I can't look past Nogueira. I think it'll take probably one more fight after this before I would get a title shot, but I've gotta get through Nogueira first."
Jason Langendorf is an editor for ESPN.com.