Prior to this year, the 28-year-old “Ultimate Fighter” winner and former Arizona State wrestler appeared to be a fast-rising star in the UFC light heavyweight division. He was undefeated at 12-0 -- having run through his first five fights in the Octagon -- and seemed to possess the right blend of grappling skill, innate athleticism and fearsome power to go places in the weight class.
In 2011 however, Bader hit the skids in a big way, getting totally overwhelmed by Jon Jones in a 205-pound title eliminator at UFC 126, then dropping what looked like an easy bounce-back bout to Tito Ortiz five months later at UFC 132. He rebounded to craft a quick knockout over Jason Brilz in early November at UFC 139, but enough questions have already been raised about Bader’s place in the division to make his upcoming bout with “Rampage” one that could define his career moving forward.
Simply put, if Bader can beat Jackson -- who is fresh off his own title shot and still ranked No. 6 in the world on ESPN.com’s power rankings -- it’ll prove he can still have a place among the upper echelon of the division. If he can’t, he might find himself relegated to a sort of B-list purgatory. He'll be a fighter who can run through the likes of Brilz, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Keith Jardine, but can’t hang with the top dogs.
It goes without saying that Bader should very much want to fall into the first category, while the second would be a lonely place for a talented guy who’d never tasted defeat before February.
A victory over Rampage would mean those two previous losses likely won’t leave a longterm stain on Bader's career. After all, it’s easy enough to shrug off the loss to Ortiz as something of a fluke and at this point there is no real shame in losing to Jones. All the cool kids are doing that.
But with the current light heavyweight champion set to face a difficult gauntlet of fighters likely to include Lyoto Machida, Dan Henderson and Rashad Evans during the next 12 months there has never been a more opportune time to solidify your contender status in this weight class. If Jones should falter somewhere along this path, Bader certainly wants to be on the short list of challengers for the new champion, alongside guys like Phil Davis, Alexander Gustafsson and a suddenly re-relevant Mauricio Rua.
A loss on the other hand and the line of contenders in front of him starts looking very long indeed. Nobody wants to begin 2012 having lost three of his last four. That would only give more ammunition to critics who use the Jones and Ortiz defeats as evidence that Bader was overrated from the start.
Win or lose, all will not be lost for a guy as relatively young and able, but the path between Bader the promised land is sure a whole lot shorter if he can corral Jackson.