Winning Strategy: Ryan Bader ‘Slowed Down,’ Then Became World Champion

In order to steamroll his way to the top of MMA, Bellator heavyweight champion Ryan Bader first had to learn to take his foot off the accelerator.

Since he began wrestling at the age of 7, Bader has only known one way of training: 100 percent, 100 percent of the time. The results spoke for itself. Bader became a two-time All American at Arizona State University. However, when it came to crossing over to MMA, Bader quickly learned that his full-throttle mindset, while hugely successful on the wrestling mats, would initially work against him in the MMA cage.

“As a wrestler, we have the problem of going all out all the time,” Bader admits. “So when I came in to MMA as a pure wrestler, it was just attack, attack, attack. And at first, I was putting myself in positions in which they were able to tap me out because I didn’t have a basic understanding of the positions. I had to learn to be patient and learn when to explode. And that’s helped me ton in MMA and BJJ.”

Whether you’re looking to shed a few pounds or gain a world heavyweight title, the formula is pretty bare bones: Set a goal, plan an effective strategy, then execute. However, real-life situations—family, career, injury, wear and tear—can turn a smooth-looking map into a confusing and rocky terrain of trial and error.

For Bader, adapting to a new environment was one of several keys to going from contender to Bellator champion. As he prepares for his April 9 rematch against Lyoto Machida at Bellator 256 (Streaming live on Showtime), the member of the Kill Cliff Fight Club shares in the first installment in Muscle and Fitness’ Winning Strategy series five training principles that’s led to Bellator titles in two weight classes and a solid footing as one of the best fighters in MMA history.

1. Make Training Consistency Your Goal

I’m all about working toward goals. I’ve been an athlete since I was 7, from wrestling to high school football to becoming a really good college wrestler. When you look at my MMA career, the biggest reason why I’ve been successful, and you can ask my coaches this, is that I’ve been consistent. When I don’t have a fight coming, I’m still in the gym, but with a different mindset. I’m there to help others. I don’t need to let my body get run down or feel the need to go too hard. But as soon as you get your name on a contract that says you’re fighting Lyoto Machida on April 9, a switch goes off in your brain. Everything becomes ramped up. You’re trying to push yourself to the brink every time. it doesn’t mean you’re going balls to the wall all the time, but you need to maintain that mindset all the way to the fight.

2. Find Your Fitness Regimen

For me, having a routine means everything because I want to know what I’m getting into each day and prepare my body. Early on in my MMA career, I was in a few situations in between [full-time] coaches in which I’d show up and we’re all like, “What are we doing today?” and we’d just end up doing a few rounds of grappling or sparring or whatever. I do not work well like that. I now have a coaching team who are a part of that routine as far as this is what we’re going to work on, so I show up already prepared.

That same type of regimen goes into my diet as well. I eat very clean, and only whole foods. I’ll take certain supplements as well. For me, it’s about keeping your body recovered and ready to go. That’s where Kill Cliff comes in. I do like caffeine, but I don’t take pre-workouts. I will drink Kill Cliff Ignite. If I was going to lift, I’d take all the caffeine I can. But on fight day, my routine is to drink half a can before we leave for the arena—any more and my body starts feeling a little weird. And when you’re fighting another man in a cage, it could get a little squirrelly.

3. Rest Requires Discipline

We go hard Mondays and Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, but Wednesdays I take completely off from the gym. Saturday, we’ll be a run day, then I’ll take Sunday off, maybe take an ice bath for recovery.

For me, it is hard not to do anything. I still have that wrestling mentality of go, go, go, and if I’m tired, go harder and for more rounds. I have a great group of coaches who I’ve had for a long time, and at times they have to tell me, “Hey, you’re doing absolutely nothing today.” I need that because there are times that I’ve been injured, and coaches will get mad because they’d be like, “You’re not doing anything this entire week,” and I’m like, “Well, I did a couple of miles on the bike.”

The biggest thing I’ve changed is that I’m finally listening to my body now. I know if I’m rested and I go into a hard training session, I feel great. But if I’m going hard the whole week, I see diminishing results. So after more than 30 pro fights, we’ve finally kind of whittled it down to this. This is how I feel my best.

4. Learn to Listen

One piece of advice I regret not taking was in my fight against Anthony Johnson (UFC on Fox, 2016). My coaches kept telling me to go out and not think about the overall fight, but instead think about the first 10 seconds, the minute, the round. Don’t look at like a five-round fight and that you need to get this guy quickly. In other words, be patient.

Instead, I was like, whatever. I went in there and totally threw the game plan out the window, and wound up taking a bad shot and getting TKO’d. If I had just followed the advice of being patient—win one exchange, then the next, the next 30 seconds, next minute, I would’ve the round, and I believe, the fight.

In my next fight I took their advice [a second-round KO of Ilir Latifi at 2016’s UFC Fight Night 93]. It worked to perfection. I’m finally getting better at listening to the people around me. I have them here for a reason, so I’m going to listen to them.

5. Embrace and Enjoy the Process

I know it’s cliché, and I give this advice to younger fighters, but if you want to be in Bellator, the UFC, whatever, you’ve got to put the work in and be consistent. It really is true. There is no magic pill. That’s the one thing I’ve done my entire career, I don’t take time off, barring injury, of course. I’m always right back at the gym, going light, working on your craft. You’re not going to get better if you’re not there training or practicing. It’s that simple.

A great piece of advice I got from my coaches once was: Don’t make it a bigger deal than it is. That meant that I have the opportunity to go out and do something not a lot of people do. So enjoy it. Don’t stress yourself out. I didn’t take it after the Johnson fight. But after that, I took it in and went out there and had fun. I wasn’t too stressed, and then went on a great run.

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