Pro UFC fighter Ryan Bader embraces ASU roots

Video by Sean Logan | Multimedia Producer

It’s an early November morning. A slight chill grips the air.

UFC light-heavyweight fighter and ASU wrestling alum Ryan Bader walks into the ASU wrestling room and laces up his shoes just like he used to when he wrestled for the Sun Devils from 2001 to 2005.

“I’m in training camp right now for a fight in December, and one of the better things for me to do is get back in a college wrestling room,” Bader said. “I go in there and wrestle all of the 197-pounders, and there’s no better training.”

There’s no better training for the ASU wrestlers either.

According to redshirt junior Kevin Radford, UFC fighters like Bader can be a little rusty on their wrestling. Sometimes they instinctually grab submission holds, but after a while the former Sun Devils pick up right where they left off.

“It’s like wrestling them when they were All-Americans again,” Radford said.

For redshirt junior Nathan Hoffer, the UFC fighters who return to ASU provide real-life examples of where the sport can take him.

“It’s truly inspiring,” Hoffer said as an Airdyne bike roared behind him. “It’s a lot of fun seeing those guys come in and train hard, knowing that some of them wrestled here but knowing they’re former wrestlers, now they’re UFC stars … it’s a big motivator for me.”

Bader and the wrestlers have obviously benefited from the training, but the UFC stars bring an added benefit to ASU wrestling as well.

Their fame has helped rescue a program that nearly got pinned.

Rebuilding a Program

In 1988 ASU won an NCAA wrestling title, but since then, the program had fallen far from where it once was.

The wrestling program was cut in 2008 because of budget woes.

Bader said it was “heartbreaking and devastating” when he heard the program was to be cut.

“This program is such a storied program being one of the best west coast schools in the country for wrestling,” Bader said. “We were always placing up there in nationals, when we were placing fifth and sixth place. We were a good wrestling school and to hear that, it sucked.”

UFC Slider ASU Alumnus Ryan Bader poses for the camera at Power MM Fitness in GIlbert. (Photo by Dominic Valente)

There was a light at the end of the tunnel, however. Only 10 days after the program was cut, wrestling was reinstated after local civic leaders raised the money needed to save the program.

“It was even better hearing that the people around it, the wrestling community, the community itself in Tempe and Phoenix and surrounding areas, rallied together and got it back,” Bader said. “Hopefully we never see that again.”

The unthinkable had been averted. The program was saved. However, the program was far from its former glory, and head coach Shawn Charles would have a lot of work to do when he joined ASU in 2009 after being a head assistant wrestling coach at the University of Missouri from 2007 to 2009.

Charles, a four-time All-American and two-time national runner-up with the Sun Devils from 1990 to 1993, would have to start from the ground up.

“It was a state where you had to rebuild,” Charles said. “Arizona State wrestling was at one of the lowest points in its history as far as the things the kids were doing out in the community, the success they were having on the mat, the success they were having in the classroom. … It’s been all about rebuilding and correcting and getting the environment corrected for us to be successful.”

Attaining that previous success wouldn’t be easy. To accomplish that, Charles would have to do one of the hardest things that any coach can do: change the culture of a program from the ground up, starting with the wrestlers themselves.

“There were kids that were recruited here, and they were recruited in a way where the environment wasn’t as good as it was supposed to be,” Charles said. “You don’t want to just oust them or push them out, but you have to get them on board and get them to change their thought processes on why they’re here, and that takes time.”

But Charles didn’t have to do it alone. He had the help from the UFC fighter alumni like Bader, Aaron Simpson, C.B. Dollaway and UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez.

The fighters never hesitated to lend a helping hand.

“They very much signed up willingly,” Charles said. “All these guys are loyal Sun Devils, and they really want to see Sun Devil Wrestling get back on top. It wasn’t any effort at all getting them to come and support us at events, at our matches and things like that. ... These guys were eager and willing to get back on board.”

 A Bright Future

With Charles at the helm and the help of the Sun Devils’ UFC alumni, the wrestling program has made a dramatic comeback from the precipice of elimination.

On top of that, thanks to the UFC stars, the wrestlers have a new path to follow after they finish their wrestling careers. It used to be the case that a wrestler's career was over after college if they didn’t have Olympic aspirations, but fighters like Bader have blazed a new trail for wrestlers to follow.

The path to the UFC starts in the wrestling room.

“I think wrestling and the UFC are sports that are very similar in a lot of aspects,” Charles said. “So I think it’s a natural transition for these guys to go from wrestling to (MMA), and for us, it’s just another avenue for when these kids graduate from college, that they have another avenue to pursue after they get done with their college careers.”

The path to the UFC is one Hoffer is considering treading.

“I’ve definitely thought about it,” Hoffer said. “I’m a huge fan. I’ve seen all these guys fight, and I question a lot whether I’m going to take off these shoes and put on some gloves. I’m definitely going to try it out and see if I like getting punched in the face or not.”

But before Hoffer steps into the octagon he’ll have to finish his time in the Sun Devils’ wrestling room, where Bader eyes a program that is ready to take a step toward the top of the collegiate wrestling ranks.

“Number one is getting in there and placing in the national tournament, placing top-10, just striving for the elite of the elite,” Bader said. “I think that’s happening. The coaching staff is great, and they’re going to push the wrestlers and make them better and in turn the team’s going to get better and better. I just believe it’s about having the right people around the wrestling team, and they have that, and that’s what’s going to grow it and make it get better in the long run.”

Reach the reporter at ejsmith7@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @EricSmith_SP


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