The heavyweight title will be on hold for the time being as reigning champion Ryan Bader prepares to enter the upcoming Bellator Light Heavyweight Grand Prix.
As announced on Tuesday, Bader is part of the eight-man field that makes up the light heavyweight tournament with the former 205-pound champ facing Lyoto Machida in the opening round on April 9.
According to Bader, he was preparing to defend his heavyweight title until he got the call from Bellator asking him to join the Grand Prix, which is expected to run through October. Despite his entry, Bader says he will retain his heavyweight title with plans to defend it once the Grand Prix is finished.
“I’m going to keep it,” Bader said about his title when speaking to MMA Fighting. “It’s one of those things where Bellator wanted me to come down to the 205-pound division. I was ready to fight for the heavyweight belt in early March but this thing was getting put together. They’re moving to Showtime and this thing is huge.
“So my plan is go in there, win this thing and get right back to heavyweight, and that’s the plan right now.”
Bellator President Scott Coker backed up Bader’s plans to maintain his status as heavyweight champion. But the former two-division titleholder’s continued success in the Grand Prix could force the promotion to make alternate plans.
Rather than stripping Bader of the title, Coker said the upcoming fight against Machida in April will ultimately decide if he moves back to heavyweight immediately or not.
“We’re going to wait to see how he does on [April 9], and then if he wins and he’s going to continue on into the tournament, we might consider having an interim belt,” Coker revealed. “We’re going to wait to see how the 9th goes first.
“If he does [continue], we can’t just leave that heavyweight division out there like that, so we’re going to give other fighters opportunities. But for right now, because the fight is a couple months away, we’re going to see how it goes for Bader, and then we’ll decide what to do from there.”
Bader last fought at heavyweight in September 2019 when his fight against Cheick Kongo ended in a no-contest after an accidental eye poke stopped the contest. There were rumors of a rematch, but instead Bader returned this past August to light heavyweight, and he lost the 205-pound title to Vadim Nemkov.
Looking back now, Bader admits that he probably wasn’t at his best in his return to light heavyweight after spending four consecutive fights at heavyweight, not to mention the late notice he received in order to book the fight against Nemkov.
The Bellator Light Heavyweight Grand Prix will now give him a shot at redemption.
“Everything was kind of in the mix with COVID, and I thought I was going to heavyweight,” Bader said. “Four weeks before the fight, I was going down to light heavyweight. So there’s some issues with that, but now that I know I’m doing this tournament, we’ve got nine weeks until we’re fighting. It’s going to be perfect. This is how I want to do it. I want to get my body down the right way and not crash it at the very end and try to go out there to perform because I didn’t perform.
“Now I get to do it right and show everyone why I became the light heavyweight champ in the first place and keep rolling.”