Last summer Ryan Bader found himself wondering where he fit in the UFC light heavyweight division. He was reeling in the aftermath of a stunning upset against Hall of Fame former champion Tito Ortiz, and the former TUF winner couldn't seem to find his footing.
The loss forced him to question everything but it was amidst this personal chaos where he found his answers.
Rather than recoil and pine over the tough stretch, Bader rededicated himself to the grind. Alongside his teammates and close friends at his Power MMA, the former standout wrestler from Arizona State University reassessed everything about his skill set. Like a mechanic in a machine shop, he broke it apart to rebuild a stronger version.
The first glimpse the MMA world had of the new and improved Ryan Bader came against Jason Brilz at UFC 139 in November. It took him less than two minutes to finish the job, and the victory earned him the right to face another former champion in Quinton Jackson.
"Rampage" was to be his biggest challenge to date and by using improved speed and footwork, he was able to earn the unanimous decision victory.
The win served to push Bader back up the divisional rankings alongside a pack of others who are all seeking a crack at the title. On Saturday night, Bader will face the always-elusive Lyoto Machida and will look to keep his momentum rolling.
"Having those losses were tough," Bader told Bleacher Report. "It brings your confidence down and makes you wonder if you belong. But we sat down and figured out what we were doing wrong. We got a new coaching staff. Most importantly we brought on a new head coach and boxing coach. We handed over the reigns and gave everything over to them to run our camps.
"Bringing the coaches on was huge. It helped us put everything together and now everyone is working towards the same goal. Coach is great about getting different sparring partners to emulate the opponent coming up. My boxing is a lot better because I'm actually working with a real boxing coach. Everything is working out very well.
"I've worked a ton of footwork and head movement. Those are the little things in striking you have to do and I had never done them before. My new coaches have me doing this day in and out and the results have shown. I went out there and knocked out Jason Brilz.
"In that fight I probably looked the best I've ever looked on my feet. In the next fight against Rampage we had a game plan to strike and get out. We didn't want to play into his power and it worked out. I've started to do the little things which will make a huge difference.
"Since then I'm on a good little win streak. Those have come over some tough guys. Coming into this fight with Machida, I feel confident. It's a great opportunity to fight on Fox in the co-main event against a former champion. That will be two former champions in a row and I'm looking to take him out.
Bader fired out of the gates in his career as we was victorious in his first 12 outings. Those accomplishments pushed him into the Top 10 rankings of the UFC light heavyweight division where the caliber of competition is fierce.
Despite stumbling in back-to-back outings against Jones and Ortiz, Bader has worked diligently to regain his status as one of the top 205-pound fighters in the organization.
Over the course of his comeback, Bader feels his overall skill set has improved drastically. Working with a boxing coach has increased both his speed and movement which are two attributes which will be tested against the versatile striking style of Machida.
"You can't let him dictate the spacing," Bader said. "If you play into his fight you're in trouble. He keeps the type of spacing where you think you are safe but he can close that distance very quickly and strike.
"There is a fine line between being aggressive and over-aggressive and stupid. I'm going to be smart about it. We've been working on it and I'm going to use everything. I'm going to use my hands, wrestling, kicks, and implement them all together. I believe that will be the key to my success in this fight.
"It's been a unique experience preparing for Machida, but I like that. I love the challenge. Every fight is different and Lyoto is definitely one of those fighters who is totally different than anyone I've ever faced. It's fun figuring that out. It's about getting the right sparring partners and we were able to find a guy who emulates him perfectly.
"Lyoto has had some losses in his past few fights but he just fought for the title and he's facing nothing but the very best in the division. You are going to see that when you are fighting that caliber of guys. I'm expecting a tough fight and for him to be the best he's ever been. I'm ready for it."
When Dana White made the announcement this week regarding who could grab the next title shot, Bader's name was amongst those listed.
The UFC President suggested whomever was to look the most impressive in victory would be granted the opportunity. While becoming a champion is Bader's ultimate goal, his focus on Machida does not allow outside static to break through.
"I mainly block that stuff out," Bader said. "I don't need any extra motivation for this fight. It's a huge fight. It is the co-main event on Fox against a former champion. I'm looking to go in there and win impressively any ways.
"It would be cool to get the title shot but I'm not thinking about that right now. I'm thinking about going in there and beating Machida. Everything else will take care of itself. A title shot is always in the back of your mind, but it's not something that is going to change the way I fight or my game plan."
Since winning the eighth season of The Ultimate Fighter, Bader's profile has been on a steady rise. He has compiled victories over a handful of impressive names but despite the quality wins, there are remnants of the TUF stigma still lingering.
While he feels the win over Rampage helped to break that stereotype, he is confident a win over Machida will be a definitive statement that he belongs at the top of the division.
"I do think there is a little bit of a stigma that hangs on you if you win TUF, but I've been fighting talented guys for awhile," Bader said. "Starting with Keith Jardine, the competition only got better. Four or my last five fights have come against either current or former champions.
"I think when you start to face that type of competition you start to get away from that TUF stereotype. I definitely believe a win over Machida puts me right there at the top of the division. Every win over a tough guy just solidifies your career and your place in the bigger picture. That is what I'm looking to do.
"It's about growing as a fighter. I got to a certain point using a certain skill set where I was able to get by with what I had. A few fights ago I changed that up. I feel as if I'm really progressing over the past year; more so over my past two fights than I have my entire career. I feel like I'm just hitting my stride and getting to where I want to become the best fighter I can be.
"People are going to see a new fighter on Saturday. I've been working with these coaches for just a short amount of time and I've grown so much. I'm going to bring new tools to the game. I'm going to be aggressive but smart, and I'm going out there and getting the win. I'm going to shock a lot of people."