When Bryan “The Beast” Baker stepped into the cage on June 24, 2010, to fight Alexander Shlemenko in the Bellator Fighting Championship Middleweight Tournament Finals, very few people had a clue that the biggest fight of his life was being fought outside of the cage.
Baker, a 24-year-old with a13-1 record, entered the cage that evening battling chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML)—a cancer of the white blood cells, and a condition where the average five-year survival rate is approximately 54%. However, nobody outside of Baker’s family and close friends knew it that night, and he preferred to keep it that way.
“I didn’t need anybody giving me any kind of negative reaction or trying to make a decision that would change my life,” says Baker. “My mind was on winning the tournament, and that was that.” It didn’t matter that he was suffering from anemia, fever, and fatigue.
Diagnosed on April 19, 2010, Baker could have pulled out of the tournament and cited the life-threatening disease as the explanation. But the Team Wildman fighter went against his family and doctor’s orders, and he proceeded to enter the tournament with his first fight a mere 10 days later.
“When I set my mind to something, I get it done,” Baker explains. “There are no rules that you can’t fight with leukemia. So there was no reason for me not to fight.”
With only two days of abbreviated training, Baker laid waste to Sean Loeffler at 2:43 in the first round of the highly competitive tournament. It was an amazing feat, considering all that he was going through. However, the Bellator tournament schedule has fighters compete at a grueling pace, and Baker was scheduled to fight again less than a month later in the semifinals against Eric Schambari. Again, Baker struggled through a five-day training camp but scored a resounding submission victory at 2:29 in the first frame.
Despite suffering from a possibly fatal disease, “The Beast” was fighting on a higher level. He was determined to topple the juggernaut of leukemia, but the fight outside of the cage was taking a toll on his body. Baker would goon to lose in the finals against Alexander Shlemenko by first-round TKO, but rather than point at his condition, Baker pointed at himself.
“It was just one of those days where I couldn’t snap to it,” he says. “I just didn’t have the right mindset going into that fight, and I paid for it.”
Baker never uses his condition as an excuse. There are no excuses for Baker, only obstacles to overcome.
Back in February 2010, Baker and his trainer Thomas Denny moved their training camp to Colorado in order to prepare for the upcoming Bellator tournament. It was going to be a grueling camp, but nothing that “The Beast”—nicknamed for his ability to outwork everyone in the gym—couldn’t handle. The thin air and high altitude present problems for all fighters who train in Colorado for the first time. So, being short of breath and a bit weak was nothing out of the ordinary.
“I thought I just needed to get used to the altitude,” Baker recalls. “A few weeks went by and everyone was getting used to the altitude, and I was getting worse. I actually got sick and passed out in the bathroom. My vision was off and my skin was turning green.”
His family and coaches were unsure if it was mononucleosis, a staph infection, or something else. It turned out to be “something else.”
“I had blood work done and sure enough, I had leukemia,” Baker says, exhaling when he cites the date April 19, 2010—the day he was diagnosed. “It happened so fast. In a week, I went from being normal to having cancer.”
While most people with a life threatening condition would take heed to the doctor’s advice to not compete in a fight scheduled 10 days later, Baker is cut from a different cloth. He doesn’t take “no” for an answer.
“I’m a really positive person, so I just looked at battling this disease as another obstacle that God put in front of me that I had to overcome,” Baker says. “Just like in a fight, in life, you have things thrown at you from all different angles, but you can’t let those things stop you from doing what you want to do. They’re just obstacles that you have to overcome.”
In the months since being diagnosed, Baker has made a remarkable recovery thanks to the drug Gleevec. As of press time, the cancer is in remission, and Baker will be back to his beast-like ways that garnered him attention in the first place. That’s a scary thing, considering what he accomplished at 40% strength.
“The longer time goes on, the deeper into remission I’m going to become,” he says. “I’m only getting better and stronger since the last tournament. I just know I’m going to dominate that tournament next time and get my shot at Bellator Champion Hector Lombard.”
With the cancer in remission, Baker fully intends on competing in next year’s middleweight tournament, which kicks off in January. To prove that he’s ready for another shot, Baker qualified for Season 4 by disposing of UFC light heavyweight challenger and MMA veteran Jeremy Horn with a dominant three-round unanimous decision victory.
“I showed that I still want it with my victory over Jeremy Horn. I showed that I am still here. I am getting better and overcoming a lot of things,” Baker says. “I’m an all around fighter that keeps expanding. You are going to have to bring so much to the table to beat me.”