In a sport like mixed martial arts, the education process is unique. When the moving parts are all firing in sync and victory is achieved, a fighter experiences the thrill of success and validation of sacrifices made.
On the other hand, the learning curve can be a painful experience. A fighter battling through the ranks will ultimately meet a challenge he's not quite ready for, and the race for potential to match progress suffers a setback for the time being.
It is in these moments where a fighter discovers if he has what it takes to gather himself and head back into the fray. UFC light heavyweight Ryan Bader is no stranger to the highs and lows of the education process, and once again he finds himself preparing to climb back up the divisional mountain.
The former TUF winner has battled his way to the doorstep of title contention on two occasions in his young career, and both times he has been turned back in disappointing fashion. Undeterred, the former Arizona State wrestling standout is prepared to jump back into the fire to prove once and for all that he is one of the sport's best fighters in the UFC's "crown jewel" light heavyweight division.
That journey begins with Vladimir Matyushenko at UFC on Fox 6 in Chicago.
"I had a great camp and I've learned a lot in the process," Bader told Bleacher Report. "I've worked a lot of my boxing and jiu-jitsu and put it all together. Vlad is a tough opponent. He is a strong wrestler that hits hard. He's not as mobile as some of my past opponents, but he's been in there with a lot of great fighters and has come out on top most of the time. I'm looking forward to this fight. I feel this a fight where I need to put everything together and I believe that I can.
"I think speed is going to be a factor. I feel I'm more mobile and quicker. We've been working on a lot of things I can really use in this fight. It is a good fight for me and I want to go in there, get the win, but I also want to look good doing it. I've said it in past interviews, but I haven't really had a fight where I've looked back and was able to say, 'that is who I am as a fighter.' In every fight there has always been something that I didn't really live up to in there as far as what I know I can do. I want this fight with Matyushenko to be something I can look back on and know that I finally put it all together. I want it to be a fight where I show the type of fighter I really am."
"I'm going to be a new fighter," Bader added. "I want to be better every time I go out there. I want my opponents looking at past film and being surprised when they see I'm not the same fighter since the last time I competed. That is my goal. I want to go out there, be a better fighter and put it all together. I'm coming into this fight with Vlad looking for the finish. I want to knock him out. I'm coming into this fight in great shape and definitely have the conditioning to push the action hard and finish Vladimir."
Bader blitzed his way into the UFC fold by winning Season 8 of The Ultimate Fighter. The 29-year-old continued to build solid momentum as he collected victories in his next four outings, all coming against proven veterans of the sport.
His success earned the PowerMMA co-owner a bout with another rising star in Jon Jones, but after two rounds, Bader was handed the first loss of his professional career.
Looking to regain his position in the division, Bader squared off with MMA legend Tito Ortiz at UFC 132. In a shocking upset, the "Huntington Beach Bad Boy" stunned the Arizona native with a short punch followed by a fight-ending guillotine choke.
These back-to-back losses sent Bader back to the drawing board and forced him to take a hard look at the things he was doing to prepare. The decision paid off as "Darth" bounced back strong and claimed two consecutive victories over Jason Brilz and former light heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.
Defeating Jackson once again put Bader in the upper tier of the 205-pound weight class. He appeared to be one victory away from a title shot, but another setback in his next outing against Lyoto Machida pushed Bader to the back of the line.
While losses along the way have been difficult, Bader has found a silver lining in the experiences and turned the negatives into positives.
"I'm young in this sport and have only been training for five years," Bader said. "Four of my last five fights have been against champions or former champions. I'm fighting the best. I'm facing guys who have won world titles, defended them many times and are arguably some of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world.
"Getting in there with those guys is an experience. Granted, taking the losses aren't fun, but it gives me so much more that I know I need to work on. It is a learning experience. Being in there with those guys, doing all the media, all the hype that comes with big fights, is a learning experience. Rampage, Machida and Tito Ortiz are all guys I watched coming up through high school and college. Facing those guys and being in those situations definitely helps for future fights.
"When I fought Jon Jones, he was somebody nobody else wanted to fight. Nobody really wants to fight Machida, but we always step up and take those fights. The UFC calls us and we step up and take those matchups. I took a couple of losses, but I know it will help in the long run. As I said earlier, it helps me progress...it really does. Going in there with tough guys who have looked unbeatable at times and scrapping it out boosts your confidence. It shows that you can go in there with anybody.
"In this sport you have an opportunity in a short amount of time to get right back up there. I've done it before. I came out and lost to Jon Jones. He is Jon Jones and he is a great fighter, but then I lost to Tito in a fight I wasn't supposed to lose. I was definitely down about it but I came back and beat Jason Brilz and Rampage. Then I was fighting Machida for a No. 1 contender's spot.
"Things happen fast in MMA. I'm not worried about getting back up there right now. I'm focused on winning the fight in front of me."
As a physically gifted athlete, certain aspects of mixed martial arts have come easily for Bader. His wrestling pedigree provided a great foundation for his transition into the sport, and the natural power he possesses made him a knockout threat.
That being said, the finer aspects of the fight game come with time, and Bader has shown tremendous improvement in his boxing skills. His footwork and head movement are also coming along with marked progress.
Often times in mixed martial arts, a wrestler will fall in love with his ability to land a one-shot knockout, but Bader is approaching his progress in the striking department with realistic expectations.
"It really started with the Jason Brilz fight," Bader said about his progression in the stand-up game. "I really didn't know what I was doing all the way up through Tito. I went out there with the mentality I was just going to try to punch this guy in the face. I had never really had a boxing coach. We thought we did, but didn't know any better. We had guys who were holding mitts but that isn't a boxing coach. After the Tito fight we made changes. We made changes as a team and brought in some real boxing coaches. In that short period of time between the Ortiz and Brilz fights, I improved more in that span than I had in the previous two years in my boxing. I went out there, looked good and got the knockout.
"Against Rampage, I felt my hands were a lot faster and I put some good combinations together. Obviously, the game plan wasn't to go in there and box with him, but I felt a lot more comfortable in the exchanges. Going forward I feel I'm getting better and better with my hands. That being said, I'm not going to fall into a situation where I think I can box with everybody. It's a new skill and I'm getting better at it, but I need to mix things up and make it fit with my strength, which is wrestling. They will complement one another and make things that much stronger."
Potential and expectation can be difficult for a fighter to carry. Bader has already proved his ability to dust himself off and get right back to handling business. While a victory over Matyushenko will not put him back in the heated race for title contention, it will be another opportunity to prove the progress continues.
At this point in his career, that is the only thing that matters.
Duane Finley is a feature writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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