Bader: 'I want to have a belt somewhere'

Light heavyweight Ryan Bader is moving from UFC to Bellator MMA looking for an opportunity to fight for the title. Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

After 20 fights in the UFC, spread out across eight years and five continents, Ryan Bader's decision to leave for Bellator MMA came down to more than just money.

Of course, money is important. And Bader says the multi-fight deal he signed with Bellator this week will be the most lucrative of his career.

But it's not like he was unhappy with his last UFC contract. According to Bader (22-5), he made $90,000 to show and $90,000 to win his final contracted fight last November, plus $15,000 from the UFC's apparel deal with Reebok. Under those figures, Bader says he never felt a strong urge to complain.

Obviously, money played a factor in his decision to leave the UFC, but there was more to it. In a nutshell: Despite the UFC's offer to essentially extend his old contract, Bader wasn't entirely convinced they truly wanted him -- or at least, had any sort of plan for him.

"I felt like I had nothing really to prove, so what I wanted was opportunities," Bader told ESPN.com. "For me, it wasn't just about straight money. It was about, 'What's the plan for me?' When I met with [Bellator president] Scott Coker, he laid out a plan of where they are going and he laid out a plan for me. That was cool to see.

"If you look at the atmosphere right now of where the UFC is going, who's getting title shots, it's a little different. They've looked past me in booking title fights before. I wasn't too surprised they didn't match Bellator's offer or make a good offer to keep me. I wasn't expecting too much."

It's possible that Bellator will reveal its vision for Bader, 33, very soon.

On the same day it officially signed Bader, Bellator announced a summer pay-per-view event that will take place at Madison Square Garden in New York, which will feature Chael Sonnen, Wanderlei Silva, Fedor Emelianenko and Matt Mitrione.

Bader's official debut has not been announced, however he and current Bellator 205-pound titleholder Phil Davis have already expressed an interest in fighting each other at that blockbuster event. Speaking about the potential of that fight coming together, Bader stated, "I don't see why that wouldn't happen."

There would be some irony in Bader receiving a title shot in his very first fight with Bellator. It would mark the first title shot of any kind in his career.

The closest Bader felt to a UFC title shot came in 2015, when he was riding a four-fight win streak and scheduled to face Daniel Cormier. Months before their fight, Cormier was pulled from the event to replace Jon Jones in a UFC championship bout. After Cormier won the title, Bader knew he was next in line and even confronted Cormier at a UFC press conference.

Ultimately, that shot at Cormier's belt went to Alexander Gustafsson instead, who was coming off a knockout loss. Bader admits he's never forgotten the sting of that incident.

"People say, 'Why would you leave [the UFC]? You're right there. You're probably next in line,'" Bader said. "They can string you along for however long. It's frustrating. I could go back to the UFC and it could be the same thing I was in for eight years. You never know.

"You see it right now with everybody. A lot of guys are bitching about whoever it is getting a title shot because they are pulling the viewership. You're never guaranteed anything."

Bader says he does accept his share of responsibility for never fighting for a UFC championship. He lost several key fights. He fought Anthony Johnson in early 2016 and suffered a 96-second knockout. That kind of loss in that big of a spot? That's on him.

But he also collected 15 victories. And to be ranked No. 4 in the world, with 15 victories in the UFC -- a promotion should have a plan for that kind of athlete. Bellator had one, and that's a big reason Bader went there.

"There will always be something down there that says, 'All right, you won the Bellator title but you never won the UFC title,'" Bader said. "I've thought about that. I've never had the opportunity, and yes, a lot of it is my fault ... but I never got that opportunity. I can only work with the opportunity that is given to me. When I win that [Bellator] belt, it will validate a lot of my hard work.

"I fought around local shows [early in my career], jumped around. I never got to fight in one organization to win the belt. I won The Ultimate Fighter and jumped into the UFC on my fifth fight or whatnot. I want to have a belt somewhere. I'm working with what I'm given. These opportunities, I'll be extremely happy and it will validate the years I've spent in the sport, wrestling, going back to seven years old."