Ryan Bader took his first step toward reclaiming the Bellator light heavyweight championship with a unanimous-decision win over Lyoto Machida in the main event of Bellator 256 from Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.
The first round was a throwback to prime Machida. The Dragon darted in and out of range and battered Bader's body and legs with kicks while frustrating the former Bellator champion any time he tried to close the distance.
A left head kick from Machida punctuated the action as the veteran took the first round.
Bader turned the fight around in the second round. After playing Machida's game in the first five minutes, he went to his wrestling, scoring a blast double that put his opponent on the defensive.
The wrestling turned out to be the recipe for Bader's success. In the third round, he repeated the early takedown and opened up even more with Machida on the ground. He bloodied his opponent and continued to build momentum toward a complete takeover of the fight.
By the fourth round, the fight devolved into a practice of mere survival for Machida. Bader spent the vast majority of the round in top positions adding additional damage with his ground-and-pound.
The only intriguing question remaining by the fifth round was whether Machida's corner should have allowed the one-sided action to continue.
The bout serves as the opening quarterfinal of the promotion's 205-pound tournament to crown a champion. Bader—who still holds the organization's heavyweight crown—lost his light heavyweight belt to Vadim Nemkov in August 2020.
The win signifies the evolution of Bader from his early days in the UFC. Machida beat Bader in the UFC in 2012 by second-round knockout as the former Arizona State wrestler was in the midst of a 3-4 run.
Now, as a two-division champion, Bader could have been content to make heavyweight his full-time home, but the opportunity to compete in a tournament was too intriguing.
"For me to get my belt back and again be a two-division champ by getting past a stacked field like this would be sweet. Winning a second grand prix—it doesn't get much bigger than that," Bader told Jeff Wagenheim of ESPN.
Winning this grand prix could be more challenging than the heavyweight version he won in 2018. The light heavyweight field includes Anthony Johnson, Yoel Romero, Corey Anderson and the champion Nemkov.
Bader will know who his next opponent is next week. He will fight the winner of the second quarterfinal bout between former UFC contender Anderson and Dovletdzhan Yagshimuradov.
Anderson won his Bellator debut against Melvin Manhoef in November. Yagshimuradov will be making his promotional debut but brings an eight-fight win streak on the Russian scene to the cage with him.
The winner will have a former champion awaiting them in the semifinal.