Ryan Bader had a chance to potentially be considered the best MMA light heavyweight on the planet this weekend. With Jon Jones announcing his departure from the division four days ago, all eyes were on Bader to see whether he could continue his hot streak, retain his title and cement his legacy in the 205-pound division.
Upstart striker Vadim Nemkov had other plans. He stunned Bader by TKO at 3:02 of the second round to win the Bellator light heavyweight title in the main event of Bellator 244 on Friday at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut. Going in, ESPN had Bader ranked No. 2 in the world at light heavyweight, behind only Jones.
"I feel like me and Ryan Bader are the top two light heavyweights in the world right now," Nemkov said in his postfight interview through a translator. "I know there are a lot of top heavyweights in the UFC, but I think we could beat any one of them."
A Nemkov head kick rocked Bader badly, and Nemkov did not let up from there, piling on the damage with huge punches. Bader was able to get up to his feet and flee briefly, but Nemkov ran him down and blasted him with a left hand. That's when referee Kerry Hatley stepped in, perhaps a bit tardy.
"I was actually more surprised that the referee wasn't stopping the fight," Nemkov said. "I sent him to the canvas three times. I did what I had to do to win the fight."
There was an element of revenge in the victory. Bader knocked out Nemkov's mentor Fedor Emelianenko, one of the greatest heavyweights of all time, in Janaury 2019. On Friday, Nemkov returned the favor -- and took Bader's title to boot. Emelianenko was in Nemkov's corner at Bellator 244.
Nemkov's speed advantage was evident in the first round when he landed some solid combinations on Bader. That was nullified with a Bader takedown, but he was not able to get another one. Nemkov's game plan, he said, was putting Bader on his heels and getting him moving backward, something the UFC veteran has struggled with in his career.
Nemkov (12-2) has won seven straight, six of them by finish. The Russia native is a perfect 5-0 in Bellator. Nemkov, 28, has never lost inside of a cage. His lone career defeats came in Japan's Rizin, which uses a ring for MMA.
Bader (27-6, 1 NC) was unbeaten in eight straight going in. The Arizona native had not lost since a knockout defeat to Anthony "Rumble" Johnson on a UFC card in 2016. Bader, 37, is also the Bellator heavyweight champion, so presumably he will continue on in that division. "Darth" has been a top light heavyweight for a decade, with career wins over former UFC champions Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Rashad Evans, as well as Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Emelianenko.
In the co-main event of Bellator 244, Julia Budd got back on a winning track, beating Jessy Miele by unanimous decision. Budd (14-3) had not fought since she lost the Bellator women's featherweight title to Cris Cyborg back in January. Budd, 37, had won 11 straight going into that bout. Her only career losses have come against perhaps the three greatest female fighters in women's MMA history: former UFC champ Cyborg, current UFC double champion Amanda Nunes and superstar Ronda Rousey.
Also on the card, another Emelianenko protege, Valentin Moldavsky, defeated popular heavyweight Roy Nelson by unanimous decision, and John Salter got his 10th win in 11 fights, beating Andrew Kapel by third-round submission.