Grand prix pulled Ryan Bader away from heavyweight, but he has no plans to vacate title

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UNCASVILLE, Conn. – Ryan Bader was headed to heavyweight to defend his title. Then the Bellator light heavyweight grand prix happened, and things changed.

One fight removed from losing his 205-pound title to Vadim Nemkov at Bellator 244 in August, Bader (27-6 MMA, 5-1 BMMA) will return to action Friday at Bellator 256 against Lyoto Machida. It’s not the weight class most people, including Bader, expected he’d compete in next, but Bellator needed him.

“(The plan) was to defend the heavyweight belt,” Bader, who holds the promotion’s heavyweight championship, told MMA Junkie on Wednesday. “I was going to fight Tim Johnson in potentially March, early March. We were waiting for this whole Showtime deal to go through and all that kind of stuff. That was going on at the same time. Then they came up and asked us if we wanted to do the light heavyweight tournament, the grand prix. (They said) they’d rather us do that.

“We said, ‘Whatever you want us to do. We’d love to enter another grand prix.’ I asked them too, ‘Well, what about the heavyweight belt?’ They were like, ‘We’ll figure that out. Keep it for now. We’ll go forward and see what happens.’ That was kind of how that whole ordeal worked out.”

Bader has not competed at heavyweight since 2019. His absence has paused divisional flow and left contenders, namely Timothy Johnson (15-6 MMA, 3-2 BMMA), in limbo of whether or not to take another fight.

Despite the division in which he holds a belt being essentially put on hold, Bader doesn’t bear the responsibility for his inactivity. To him, vacating his title shouldn’t be on the promotion’s agenda since Bellator presented him with the grand prix opportunity. Maybe an interim belt is the way to go.

“I’m not giving it up. No. 1, because I fought there,” Bader said. “Bellator came to me and asked me if I wanted to do this tournament. They said I could keep this belt. Maybe an interim belt going (forward)? But that’s up to Tim Johnson. He’s the No. 1 contender. I know we agreed on this fight, and he’s been looking great and (has) three (straight) wins.

“It’s just one of those things. Does he want to fight for an interim belt? Then we can unify it? Or does he want to wait for the actual title shot? That’s always a gamble, too. At the end of the day, I want to be active. Barring any injuries, if I got out there and win this tournament, I’ll be ready a couple of months after those finals. It’s really kind of up to Bellator and up to him.”

Bellator 256 takes place Friday at Mohegan Sun Arena. The main card airs on Showtime after prelims on MMA Junkie.


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