Three years ago, Ryan Bader was flying pretty high.

Bader was a star. He had transitioned from a stellar collegiate wrestling career — three Pac-10 titles at Arizona State University, NCAA All-American honors twice — to the world of mixed martial arts, with a pro debut barely a year after graduation. Bader racked up a 7-0 record in just a little over a year, before his successful audition for The Ultimate Fighter reality show.

There, he won three straight fights to advance to a finale against Vinicius Magalhães in 2008. One first-round knockout later, Bader had the title of Ultimate Fighter to go along with his undefeated record.

Four fights followed. Four victories.

Most impressively, Bader knocked out KO artist Keith Jardine in Sydney, Australia at UFC 110, and then earned a wide, unanimous decision victory over Antônio Rogério Nogueira in Indianapolis at UFC 119.

Bader seemed to have it all. He was that well-rounded, wrestle-box, North American prototype of MMA success. Bader had the wrestling acumen to control the bout, along with the power to end it. He didn’t lack finesse, either: against Noguiera, who was an accomplished amateur boxer as well as one of MMA’s best jiu-jitsu players, Bader jabbed and moved well enough to effectively out-box the former PRIDE FC contender. Bader’s conditioning seemed equally superb, backed by a great camp in Arizona that included fellow wrestling standouts like CB Dollaway.

Weaknesses were hard to spot… other than a goofy nickname or two. “Master?” “Darth?” Ugh.

Bader was 12-0 in September 2010. He won three more unofficial bouts on the Ultimate Fighter Season 8. Everything seemed to be falling in place. At 27, Bader appeared to be moving into his athletic prime. Many pegged Bader to become the first UFC champion to come from the ranks of The Ultimate Fighter since Rashad Evans.

Then… crash.

First was a beating at the hands of Jon Jones, who has since turned a corner to greatness.

Then, more damaging, was an upset loss to the faded former champion Tito Ortiz.

Since that 12-0 start, Bader has won only three of his last seven bouts, and dropped out of the light heavyweight top ten in many ranking systems. ESPN and MMA Junkie have him at #9.

ESPN notes:

Bader is a well-rounded, athletic fighter. He also needs to start producing results. Before getting knocked out, he was doing terrific against Teixeira in his last bout, but moral victories don’t count for too much in this sport.

It seems as Bader stepped up in competition, problems began to surface. He gets stunned by shots that other fighter’s wouldn’t and just doesn’t always fight in a way which keeps to his advantage. It worked against Nogueira. It just hasn’t since.

Lyoto Machida elbows Ryan Bader in their 2012 bout. Machida won via knockout.
Lyoto Machida elbows Ryan Bader in their 2012 bout. Machida won via knockout.

In three days, Bader will look to get back on track at  fighting Anthony Perosh at UFC Fight Night: Hunt vs. Bigfoot. A jiu-jitsu pioneer in Australia, Perosh isn’t regarded a top opponent, but he has momentum. He’s coming off a spectacular one round knockout of Bader’s old foe Vinicius Magalhães in Brazil, and he’ll be fighting with a rabid Australian home crowd on his side.

The bout may earn Bader some momentum. He’s still a good fighter, at any rate. Is he great, as some predicted?

Unfortunately, it appears that Bader’s issues with “Fight IQ,” and not-the-best chin, may be enough to keep him from serious contention.

Here’s hoping he — like Nate Diaz last weekend — can prove me wrong.