For many, Feb. 20 marked the day Ryan Bader jumped from Ultimate Fighter prospect to legitimate contender.
Prior to the fight, many questioned whether his conditioning would be able to keep up with his pace. They questioned his skills outside of outstanding wrestling. They were unsure if he could hang with the top of the division.
Ryan Bader answered these questions in his UFC 110 fight with Keith Jardine but arose another question: Does his win over Keith Jardine really warrant him a spot at potential contender?
His finish over "The Dean of Mean" was spectacular. He wobbled Jardine with a straight right before finishing the fight with a flying knee to the shoulder, followed up by a brutal left hook directly on the button.
Despite the finish, one must still look at the 13 minutes prior to the knockout. The battle was really close for the better part of that time frame.
With cleaner strikes and a very nice take-down, where he controlled Jardine for a better part of the round, one could give the slight edge to Bader in round one.
Round two saw Bader land considerably less strikes while Jardine picked up his pace. Add to that Bader's inability to score a take-down on multiple attempts, and one could argue that Jardine's work was enough to take round two.
With the fight practically even going into the final round, both fighters were likely feeling the pressure of an impressive ending. Bader capitalized on a Jardine mistake and emphatically won the fight without the help of the ring-side judges.
So why isn't he deserving of contender status?
Bader looked extraordinary in his finish over Jardine, but that was about it. He didn't dominate the fight throughout. It was actually quite possible that the pace of the fight prior to the knockout would have led to a decision loss for Bader.
But he defeated the tough son-of-a-cannon Keith Jardine, right?
Yes, but one must look at Jardine's recent track record.
While he has been in some great wars with the top of the division, he has been on the losing ends of most of them, with a so-so record of 6-6 inside the UFC. His last two wins were both split decisions, and many people feel he could have just as easily lost.
And frankly, Jardine just hasn't been the same with the rise of the light-heavyweight division. He will always be one of those guys who can take any fight, but it's unwise to put money down on it.
But Bader knocked him out, right?
True, Bader knocked out a guy that's been known to survive some nasty punches, but he doesn't have an iron jaw like some may believe. In fact, it is suspect at best. Five of his seven losses have come by knockout. Not a technical knockout, but a stone cold, lights out, birdies chirping, clocks ringing, stars glimmering knockout.
Bader's knockout, although very impressive, doesn't seem so special with Jardine's head-spinning losses.
Another reason we shouldn't jump aboard the Bader hype train just yet is how easily his greatest attribute was stuffed for a better part of the fight.
After one big take-down in the first round, Bader was stuffed throughout the match by Jardine's under-estimated sprawl. His bread and butter was snubbed, and Bader was forced to rely on his other assets.
Although he came out on top with his improved striking, a game-plan that he effectively clung on to, it's not always going to work out in his favor. The top 10 of the division are all superior strikers, and most of them have a tougher sprawl than Jardine does.
There is always MMA's element of surprise where anyone can beat anybody, but Bader's chances in the top 10 are very slim at this point in his career. With his current skill set, he simply is not ready.
At the age of 26, there is still so much room for him to develop into the breed of fighter with enough skills and killer instinct to wreak havoc. The UFC knows this, too; they are going to build him up with careful match-making, similar to Bader's collegiate teammate, Cain Velasquez.
His next fight will likely be against someone with name value, but he is still lacking in certain areas of his game. A fighter who is very dangerous, yet beatable at the same time. It will be a fight that will test Bader's courage and strength enough to justifiably permit the UFC to bump him into the upper echelon of the division.
Ryan Bader does have the potential to get there, but now is not his time.