Ryan Bader rings in new era as PFL vs. Bellator headliner

Ryan Bader was wondering the same thing a lot of fans were when it was announced that the Bellator heavyweight titleholder would face PFL’s most recent season winner in a champion vs. champion showdown.

Are elbow strikes allowed?

To the delight of virtually every interested party, Bader is free and clear to throw them ‘bows when he meets Renan Ferreira in the historic PFL vs. Bellator pay-per-view event on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET main card) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

“That was my question too, and then we got word that they are allowed,” Bader recently told The Post via video call with regard to elbow strikes, which have traditionally not been allowed in season-structured PFL. “That’s big for us, big for me, my fighting style, everything like that.”

PFL 2023 heavyweight season champion Renan Ferreira (left) and Bellator heavyweight champion Ryan Bader face off at January’s PFL vs. Bellator press conference. PFL

The event kicks off PFL’s 2024 slate, the first full year for the organization since it purchased Bellator MMA from Paramount in November.

While it’s not exactly cross promotion when everyone gets their checks from the same place, this weekend’s cross-pollination of the formerly separate rosters offers a unique opportunity to create a host of matchups that were all but impossible 12 months ago.

And while neither Bader’s Bellator gold nor Ferreira’s champion status — which is more akin to a Super Bowl or Stanley Cup title rather than a combat sports belt that is perpetually defended — are on the line in their three-round clash, Bader sees it the way at least a few observers may as well.

“You walk away from that fight, if you win, you’re like, ‘Hey, I’m pretty much PFL champ and Bellator champion, you know,” says Bader, who returns to action for the first time since retiring legendary heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko last February.

Bader (31-7, 16 finishes), who burst onto the scene with the UFC in 2008 as the light heavyweight winner of the eighth season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” is 6-0 as a heavyweight and once reigned as Bellator’s two-division champion at the two heaviest weight classes.

At 6-foot-2 and roughly 235 pounds these days, few look at the former two-time All-American wrestler from Arizona State and think: small.

Next to the gargantuan Ferreira, on the other hand, the 40-year-old Bader is pretty close to that.

Brazil’s Ferreira (12-3, 11 finishes) towers over Bellator’s champ at 6-8, 260-plus pounds, and he’s coming off a 2023 in which he officially finished 3-0 with three (T)KOs inside of 6 minutes — plus a decision loss to Rizvan Kuniev in April that was overturned by a positive test for banned substances.

A threat with both submissions and heavy hands, Bader knows to be wary of his athletic opponent but knows his wrestling prowess — and the license to toss some elbows Ferreira’s way — could be the equalizer.

“He’s very athletic; he can do a standing backflip and all that kind of stuff,” Bader said. “Big guys sometimes have a lack of, I want to say, control or whatnot with their big bodies, especially in the grappling and wrestling department, especially a guy like him. … Watching film study, that’s his weakness is being on the ground. His cardio, his ground game is probably the weakest in his game.

“He gets taken down, he cannot get back up. And these are guys with 14- and 15-[fight] records,” continued Bader, who faced a who’s who of top UFC and Bellator talent at 205 pounds and over during the last 15 years. “He is a great fighter, he’s a champion in his own right, but if you look at records, you look at who I fought, who he’s fought, you can’t compare him.”

While the event was conceived as a champion vs. champion extravaganza, with the champions from the six 2023 PFL season weight classes — heavyweight, light heavyweight, welterweight, lightweight, and men’s and women’s featherweight — facing their Bellator counterparts, Bader’s headlining matchup is technically the only fight left standing that meets that definition.

The co-main event pits Bellator middleweight champ Johnny Eblen against Impa Kasanganay, who won the light heavyweight season for PFL, down at Kasanganay’s more natural 185 pounds.

Bellator champions Patricio Pitbull (featherweight) and Jason Jackson (welterweight) remain present but will face 2023 season runner-up Gabriel Braga — whose father Diego was killed in their native Brazil last month — and 2019 and 2021 PFL champ Ray Cooper III, respectively.

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