At 11-0, Ryan “Darth” Bader has quickly become a force in the UFC light heavyweight division. Now, he’s taking the biggest gamble of his career—leaving Arizona Combat Sports and creating his own gym with friends CB Dollaway and Aaron Simpson.
Gary Bader and Sons Construction has been around for nearly four decades. Grandpa Gary laid the groundwork and Ryan’s father, Mark, continues the tradition. Contracting is not easy work, but the Baders love it. When someone remarks about their office job and says, “It’s better than digging ditches,” Ryan Bader disagrees.
“To me, hard work is getting outside, or getting in a gym and sweating, using your body to its maximum,” Bader says. “I’m not meant to be sitting at a desk. It might be for some people. It’s just not for me.”
Bader made this determination shortly after finishing a stellar wrestling career at Arizona State University that included two-time All-American honors and more than 120 wins. But after graduating, Bader found himself selling phone and Internet services for a telecommunications company.
“I’ve been an athlete all my life,” Bader says. “After I graduated, I did what everyone else was doing—I got a job. Normally I’m a happy person, but something was missing. That fire was still burning. I’d be sitting in traffic on my way to work daydreaming about my escape from this job. I asked myself, ‘What am I doing with my life?’”
Bader sought solace on the wrestling mat, rolling with ASU teammate CB Dollaway and Jesse Forbes, a standout high school wrestler from Tempe, who invited Bader and Dollaway to workout at Arizona Combat Sports just to keep in shape.
Forbes had gotten involved with mixed martial arts and was actively fighting in the WEC. He had been on The Ultimate Fighter Season 3 in 2006, eventually losing to Matt Hamill in the TUF Finale. Though Bader and Dollaway started out purely wrestling, Forbes taught the two Sun Devils some submission moves. Then they started boxing. One thing led to another and Bader was hooked. Later, the two enticed their former ASU assistant coach, Aaron Simpson, to join them.
Bader quit his job and never looked back. The financial hit was difficult, but he was willing to sacrifice creature comforts in order to train full-time. He fought in small, local shows where the paychecks were correspondingly marginal. The money was barely enough to live on, but Bader knew this was his path.
LAYING THE FOUNDATION
“The reason I knew Ryan would do well in MMA was because he was never afraid to get hit in the face on the wrestling mat,” says Thom Ortiz, Bader’s wrestling coach at ASU. “If you don’t like getting punched in MMA, then you won’t succeed. Bader’s not afraid of anything.”
As a high school senior, Bader earned Nevada defensive football player of the year and two-time all-state wrestling honors. When ASU began seriously courting him, Bader visited the campus and the first person he met was assistant wrestling coach Aaron Simpson.
“I saw Bader walk in and I couldn’t believe the physique on this kid,” Simpson says. “It was like he was a 25-year-old mature man, but he was barely 18.”
Bader actually was leaning toward playing football after leading his high school to a state title. As a middle linebacker, Bader relished the constant contact between the A and B gaps. He had started since his sophomore year, but wrestling was his first love.
“Around 11 years old, I started wrestling year-round,” Bader says.“When I was a senior, I qualified for the Senior National High School Tournament, and I came in third. That’s when ASU recruited me. I visited once and was sold.”
After a wrestling work ethic forged in the Arizona desert sun, Bader took to the Octagon, earning a spot on The Ultimate Fighter Season 8 in 2008. He endured a year-and-a-half audition process until the house cast was finally determined. Both Bader and teammate CB Dollaway reached the TUF finals, where Dollaway fell short,but Bader went on to win the six-figure contract with a first-round knockout of Vinicius Magalhaes.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Ortiz says. “I think wrestlers are able to pick up the jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai more quickly because of the repetition. Where the normal person would do 10 reps, a wrestler will do 30. It’s not just the time put in, it’s the repetition put in during that time. That’s what Ryan did in college, and he’s doing it now in MMA.”
In the ring, on the mat, inside the Octagon—no matter how it’s cut, fighting is two individuals meeting face to face. What often gets lost in that dynamic is the team that is required to help the individual prepare for the fight. A fighter might be alone in the cage, but he sure didn’t get there alone.
The ASU wrestling bond among Bader, Simpson, and Dollaway motivated them to start their own facility and team. In leaving Arizona Combat Sports, the three Sun Devils have become nomads of sorts, as they await the completion of their own MMA facility in Gilbert, Ariz. According to Simpson, the trio hopes to have the complex up and running by the end of the summer.
“It wasn’t under bad terms or a disagreement that we left Arizona Combat,” says Bader. “We just felt it was time to move on and do something for ourselves.”
For the MMA fighter, the new gym features one-stop shopping. The facility is a Bally’s Fitness, so much of the 25,000-square foot space is already fitted for athletic training.
“It’s a state-of-the-art complex,” Simpson says. “Everything will be under one roof—strength training, speed and agility training, and a physical therapy area for sports medicine. It’s going to be great.”
Although the friends know it’s a gamble to leave an established team like Arizona Combat, they’ve never been afraid of moving forward. It’s the wrestler mentality in each of them.