From the time Ryan Bader was selected as the first pick of coach Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in Season 8 of "The Ultimate Fighter," the former Division I All American wrestler from Arizona State was destined to make noise in the UFC’s toughest division.
On Feb. 20 at UFC 110, the light heavyweight prospect takes the toughest challenge of his young career when he squares off against veteran Keith Jardine. Jardine holds victories over former champions Forrest Griffin and Chuck Liddell, but comes into the contest having dropped three of his last four fights, two by brutal knockout.
Bader (11-0) knocked out Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace Vinny Magalhaes in the Ultimate Finale in December 2008, securing the show's guaranteed contract and cementing his spot among a bevy of young prospects in the 205-pound division.
After two victories over veterans Carmelo Marrero and Eric Schaefer, the step up in challenge will be worth watching. A loss or poor showing by Bader will hinder his ascension.
One month after the Bader-Jardine fight, one of the sport's youngest rising stars, 22-year-old light heavyweight Jon Jones (9-1) battles a tough competitor in Brandon Vera (11-4). Former NCAA wrestling champion Phil Davis made an impressive debut at UFC: 109 by showing off his explosive ability in defeating a game Brian Stann.
Bader may have gotten a head start on his fellow prospects because of his reality show victory, but they will all need to continue to improve and impress in order to break into the elite level with the likes of champion Lyoto Machida, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Rashad Evans and Rampage Jackson.
Machida and Shogun will have their rematch in Montreal on May 8 at UFC 113, while Evans and Jackson will settle their rivalry later in the month. While these fights are taking place, it’s imperative for the young fighters mentioned above to continue to evolve their games.
All three possess top level wrestling abilities, and both Jones and Bader have shown proficiency on their feet, although their styles vary greatly. Bader has more traditional straight-forward power in his hands, while Jones incorporates athletic moves such as spinning elbows and back kicks that are rarely seen in top level MMA competition.
Unlike the other divisions in the UFC where it’s difficult to see any of the champions being knocked off their perches any time soon, the 205-pound division is filled with enough rising stars such as Bader and Jones, and established veterans such as Rua and Evans to keep the title picture very interesting for the foreseeable future.