Ryan Bader prepares to defend his light heavyweight title against...

Ryan Bader prepares to defend his light heavyweight title against Vadim Nemkov at Bellator 244 at Mohegan Sun Arena on Aug. 21, 2020. Credit: Bellator MMA/Lucas Noonan

Ryan Bader is exactly where he wants to be at age 38: ready for the next fight without the worry of a weight cut.

Sure, losing the Bellator MMA light heavyweight championship in 2020 — then failing to reclaim it in a grand prix tournament the following year — wasn’t ideal. But the veteran said he remains all-in on the fight game ahead of his 37th career bout, and all-in on defending a heavyweight belt that’s collected dust since 2019 as he looks to stay atop the sport in this late stage of his career.

"In the moment, everything's big, right? Everything around us is where you want to be, what you want to do," Bader told Newsday. "But right now I’m all about heavyweight, for sure."

Bader (28-7, 1 NC) faces Bellator interim champ Valentin Moldavsky (11-1) to unify their titles at Bellator 273 on Saturday in Phoenix. A fixture at 205 pounds for his entire career, Bader first tested the heavyweight waters for the Bellator heavyweight grand prix in 2018, only to become champion with three wins including a TKO of Fedor Emelianenko in the final in January 2019. Bader defended his new belt that September against Cheick Kongo, a fight ruled a no contest because of a Bader eye poke.

After losing his light heavyweight title to Vadim Nemkov in his first fight back at 205, Bader revved up for a return to heavyweight but was delayed by another grand prix invitation.

"They asked me and I said, 'sure, why not?'" Bader said of the light heavyweight grand prix. "So that was kind of all extra, all gravy. But I'm looking forward to getting in there defending my heavyweight title and staying up here. I feel good here."

As one would expect, nearly 15 years as a professional mixed martial artist (after an All-American wrestling career at Arizona State) take their toll. Cage time and damage suffered in fights contribute, but intense weight cuts are a different physical and mental challenge.

Ryan Bader in Bellator

Heavyweight: 3-0, 1 no contest

Light heavyweight: 3-2

"Throughout camp going down to 205, I walk around at 235 but I would want to try to be around 225, so I was constantly watching what I ate throughout the day, not fueling my body right for training and all that kind of stuff," Bader said. "You just started to get whittled down. I'd show up to 220-plus at fight week and have to cut all that water. And that's 24 hours before a fight, so your body goes through a lot.

"At heavyweight, I get to fuel the right way, feel good through training, fight week is awesome because I'm not worried about that, I'm worried about the fight only. Show up in jeans and weigh in and you're good to go."

Being unburdened of weight cuts isn’t simply about ease for Bader. It’s about allowing his body to keep up with his mind’s drive to compete. Smart nutrition, green juices, ice baths and CBD products from his sponsor Kill Cliff all are part of the health plan for the champion, but being able to prepare without the additional challenge may provide the biggest boost to extending his career.

"I definitely think you can have more longevity in the heavyweight division, for sure. A lot of these guys are late 30s in the heavyweight division and at the top of the game," Bader said. "Retirement-wise, I still have that fire. I still feel amazing and I can train the way I need to train to be successful…The version of me now would whoop my 25-year-old self's [expletive] so it's just one of those things where I think I'd kick myself if I had a yearning to do it still, and I couldn't. It'd just drive me crazy."

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