Since Tito Ortiz shocked the MMA world with his first-round guillotine choke victory over Ryan Bader, it’s no surprise that the vast majority of the coverage about the fight is centered around Ortiz. Not only has Ortiz prolonged his UFC career, he did it against a very highly-ranked opponent. For me, however, the more interesting side of the story is how bitter a defeat this is for Ryan Bader. Just a few months ago, Bader would have likely received a title shot if he had managed to beat Jon Jones. Now, it’s quite possible that Bader never makes a serious run at the title again.
Even though MMA is a sport that seems to be wild and unpredictable, recent trends suggest that almost every fighter who becomes a champion in the UFC almost never loses a fight. The seven current UFC champions have a combined ten losses; this includes Anderson Silva’s four losses and Jon Jones’s infamous DQ loss to Matt Hamill. The overall combined record of the seven UFC champions is currently 122-10-1. There’s no doubt that the lines between cause and effect are blurred here: generally, fighters who don’t lose are the fighters who are chosen to fight for the title. Regardless, the way the UFC is currently structured makes every loss critical.
The reason isn’t that the UFC isn’t willing to promote a fighter with a significant number of losses. We know that they did it for years with Randy Couture, and fighters like Clay Guida (29-11) can build momentum with a few key wins. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson is challenging Jon Jones for the light-heavyweight title later this year, and his record is 32-8. Instead, the reason is that fighters who lose more than a couple times are losing for a reason: they just aren’t elite fighters. They’re just not good enough to fight for the title, much less actually become the champion.
That’s why this is such a bitter pill for Ryan Bader to swallow. In a world in which every UFC champion but one has two losses or fewer, any fighter who aspires to become champion really needs to beat lower-ranked opposition on a very consistent basis. Every loss Bader or any fighter suffers serves as an indictment of their ability to fight at the highest level of the sport. Not only do they get knocked down the rankings, and are therefore farther from an opportunity to fight for the title, their ability to compete against great opponents is called into question.
This reality is reflected in the way SILVA computes its fighter ratings. A fighter with more than a few losses simply is not going to have a high enough rAP to break into consideration as an elite fighter. The most losses any fighter in SILVA’s elite tier has is eight, and Matt Hughes has 45 wins to balance those losses out. (I’m starting to think that SILVA struggles with declining fighters like Hughes, but that’s a topic for another day.) By losing to Tito Ortiz, Ryan Bader has just been kicked out of the elite tier, and his resulting SILVA score of 32.63 rates him alongside Tim Boetsch, Rich Franklin, and Matt Hamill. There’s no shame in that necessarily, but that’s not where you want to be if your goal is to become the champion.
We’ve seen this movie before. In fact, we saw it just a few weeks ago. Like Bader, Shane Carwin began his career 12-0 before losing back-to-back fights. Even though Carwin’s recent loss to Junior dos Santos wasn’t the massive upset that Bader’s loss to Ortiz was, it still served to knock Carwin firmly out of range of the elite tier of heavyweight fighters. The first loss each man suffered wasn’t too damaging to either career. Those fights seemed to say more about Brock Lesnar and Jon Jones than they did about Carwin and Bader. After the second loss for Carwin and Bader, even though credit was properly given to the respective winners in dos Santos and Ortiz, it brought up a critical question. Were Carwin and Bader never that good in the first place?
All of a sudden, Bader’s relatively thin resume is put under the microscope. He has one legitimately great win against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (although it’s worth noting that “Little Nog” had just hit the 9-year mark of his career at that point). After that, his best win is your choice of Keith Jardine, Eric “Red” Schafer, or Carmelo Marrero. That’s not a problem for a fighter who’s undefeated, as the fact that Bader had never lost served to establish him as one of the light-heavyweight division’s top prospects. For a fighter on a two-fight losing streak, it’s a bright, glowing red flag.
Ryan Bader is not doomed. Plenty of fighters have come back from a couple of losses to make great runs in their division or even become the champion. But Bader’s back is against the wall. If he can respond to the Ortiz loss with a winning streak against tough competition, he can establish himself as an elite fighter again. On the other hand, if Bader loses one or two more fights, he’ll be in severe danger of either becoming “just another guy” in the UFC, or at worst, being cut from the UFC altogether. It’s possible that Bader really is an elite fighter, and “just got caught” by Ortiz. It’s much more likely that Bader really isn’t an elite fighter, and that he’ll settle in to being a good, but not great, UFC light-heavyweight fighter. Time will tell.