INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The pressure wasn’t just on Ryan Bader to win on Saturday — it was on him to win, and to do it in memorable fashion.
Heavyweight champion Bader (31-7 MMA, 9-2 BMMA) stopped all-time MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko (40-7 MMA, 4-3 BMMA) in the first round of their rematch at Bellator 290. Bader defended his title with victory and sent “The Last Emperor” into retirement at age 46, with a loss.
But he said there was a tension that came with remembering a 35-second knockout victory over Emelianenko in 2019, as well as what comes with being a reasonably heavy betting favorite – and knowing that most fans at the Kia Forum near Los Angeles wanted to see Emelianenko come out with a fairy tale ending.
“He’s not necessarily the bad guy,” Bader said in his post-fight press conference shortly after needing just over a half-turn to put the legendary Russian away with a TKO. “It’s the pressure that’s put on you because you’re supposed to win. “You did it in 35 seconds” (the first time). “He’s so old”, all that kind of stuff. But I know how dangerous it is. Him in there giving me those punches, that hard right hand — it’ll knock anyone out if it connects. I think the biggest part of it was the pressure of you’re supposed to go out there and beat it hard. Fortunately, I did.
“…When it was over, I went upstairs and talked to Fedor for a bit. It’s bittersweet – he’s one of my favorite fighters, that’s for sure. But I had a job to do, and that’s what I did.
Bellator had known for months that Emelianenko’s next fight would likely be his last. The promotion was booking its retirement bout in front of its home Russian fans in Moscow’s Red Square for what would have been a potentially historic moment in MMA history.
But when Russia invaded Ukraine and started a war that is now approaching a year old, thinking about putting a fight card in Russia became an exercise in futility for Bellator.
He ended up on the West Coast instead, and there was a buildup for his dispatch, along with many retired MMA luminaries from the early MMA era — veterans like Mark Coleman, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Royce Gracie and Matt Hughes.
And while the discussion may have focused primarily on Emelianenko’s exit from the sport and not what’s next for Bader, he will eventually have to figure out who comes after his title.
“I don’t know who’s next. That’s the thing,” Bader said. “I would like new blood. I feel like I keep recycling a bit, and that’s because these guys are good and they’re coming back up and worth the shot. I did not think about it. I’m just enjoying tonight and then I’m just seeing. I would love some new blood. I know (Valentin) Moldavsky and Linton Vassell are fighting (at Bellator 292 in March). That would be the logic. New blood would be nice, but I don’t know who.
“(Moldavsky) had a tough fight, a close fight. I think he and Linton Vassell are right there, and they’re fighting. I fought them both, and we would recycle again. But I would probably say Moldavsky just based on the fact that he beat Linton last time out. But Linton is also on a tear. I think it was his first heavyweight fight when he fought Moldavsky. Maybe he found a way to handle that heavy body. … Logically, that would be next, but maybe there’s someone else. Who knows.”
The highest ranked fighter in Bellator’s top 10 heavyweights who hasn’t fought Bader is Steve Mowry (11-0 MMA, 7-0 BMMA), who went undefeated on Saturday with a win over undefeated Ali Isaev (9-1MMA, 0-1BMMA).
For more on the card, visit MMA Junkie’s Event Center for Bellator 290.