Photo via mmalice.com
That's not the answer Bryan Baker was expecting to hear when he got the results from a blood test taken with a physician just two weeks before the Bellator season three middleweight tournament. He had initially gone to the doctor because he felt weak in training, but he left with even more questions.
Despite his diagnosis, Baker pressed on, fighting his chronic leukemia while still competing in the tournament. He defeated Sean Loeffler via technical knockout (TKO) in less than three minutes. His next opponent, Eric Schambari, a man he'd gone the distance with two and a half years prior in the WEC, was put away even faster with a first round triangle choke.
Baker's incredible and inspirational run was stopped in the finals by Alexander Shlemenko but he had even better news -- remission.
The talented 26-year old middleweight spoke with MMAmania.com during a guest appearance on The Verbal Submission radio show about his battle with cancer, his surprising proposal and his upcoming fight with Jared Hess this Saturday night (September 17, 2011) at Bellator 50.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): How is the married life treating you? That's a huge change in your life since the last time I spoke with you.
Bryan Baker: Yeah, it's great man. It's blessing after blessing from wanting to provide and establishing a house, it gives you that extra motivation to want to accomplish many things.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Bellator had that big preview show introducing the middleweight tournament field and you were a big feature on that. You just looked so confident with everything you said. You had a big smile on your face, you looked determined. I've never seen you look so confident. Can you talk about this change in mindset, this confidence that appears to be overtaking you as you head into this tournament?
Bryan Baker: I've overcame so much and I've battled so much and so hard to just continue to do what I love. Now, at this point, it's just a free spirit just able to do what I love. The way I'm feeling, I'm so motivated and I'm able to put in the experience at this point and I've been in the game for about five years now. I'm turning 26 next month and I'm in the beginning stages of my greatness. It's just putting it all together at the right time.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): It's gotta be a huge boost to have two big wins over UFC veterans, Jeremy Horn and Joe Riggs back to back since the last tournament.
Bryan Baker: Yeah, those two fighters, it was a big honor participating in those two fights against guys with so much experience and to get victories over them. It's an honor and it's definitely a boost as you said.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): I've got to ask about what happaned after that Joe Riggs fight. You went out and knocked out Joe Riggs and then with the most perfect timing ever, you drop to a knee and asked your girlfriend to marry you. That was crazy. That must have been one of the biggest emotional highs you've ever been on.
Bryan Baker: Awww man. I wasn't nervous until the point where they gave me the microphone. I wasn't nervous for the fight. I was confident, I was having fun and then right when they handed me the mic, everything just hit me like, "Oh man, I'm about to really do this." My thumb got twisted and my spirit was fluttered and it was an amazing moment to just put everything together. I didn't rehearse anything or preview what I was gonna say. I was just flowing through it and it turned out to be an amazing night.
Gerry Rodriguez: What would you have done if she had said no?
Bryan Baker: That wasn't even a question. It wasn't a possibility. It wasn't even a thought (laughs). There was no sense of, "What if?" None in my mind whatsoever.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): If by some miracle, Joe Riggs had been the better man that night, would you still have proposed?
Bryan Baker: Probably not, actually. Probably not. I don't think I would have. (laughs)
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Getting back to the upcoming tournament. You've got Jared Hess as your first round draw. He was the finalist in the first ever Bellator tournament. He made it four rounds with Hector Lombard before losing via cut and he made it to the semifinals before the last Bellator tournament before hurting his knee. This is a legit guy. You've got the runners-up of the last two tournaments and they're meeting each other in the first round. Can you talk about what you're expecting with him?
Bryan Baker: I'm expecting a hard fight. He's a fighter who has a lot of heart. At the same time, I'm expecting a wrestler. That's what he is and what he's always been. I believe my striking has surpassed his and I believe that he's gonna stick to what he's confident in and he'll try wrestling. I'm no amateur to wrestling myself. I just had to get my reaction back down with wrestling a little bit. I've got some guys helping me out from the Olympic training center in Colorado and my wrestling has been on point. I'm ready to show how my striking is going to lead him into booby traps. That's what I'm going to set him up for.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You haven't really faced a high level wrestler in an MMA fight since Chael Sonnen. Was there anything that you learned from that fight back at WEC 33 over three years ago that you can take into this fight knowing that Jared Hess is probably going to try to take you down repeatedly?
Bryan Baker: I just really understand that with striking if you are really trying to knock your opponent out with every punch, they're gonna be able to drop under it and they're gonna be able to use your momentum against you. I believe my striking has evolved to where I don't throw my whole body into it. I'm just gonna stick and move, touch him where I want and chop away before he's able to actually get a vision of what he's trying to take down. Everywhere I am in a fight, I have a sense of comfortability. Even if I do get taken down, it's not a loss. I'll be like, "Ok, he took me down, but it's right back to work." I feel I'm just as good with submissions as I am with my stand-up if not better. Wherever the fight ends up, I keep my comfortability at all points of the fight.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You fought the last tournament just two weeks after being diagnosed with chronic leukemia and you went out and you finished your first two opponents both in the first round. I've heard you mention that you couldn't even train for a full week while preparing for those two fights. How are you feeling physically for this tournament compared to the last tournament?
Bryan Baker: Aww man, it's leaps and bounds. Honestly, I wasn't able to jump rope for five minutes after being diagnosed with the leukemia at that point. I did honestly train for about two days for Sean Loeffler and about three or four days for Eric Schambari and unfortunately I came up short in the finals against Alexander Shlemenko who will be back in this tournament as well, which I'm excited to go and avenge that loss.
It's been leaps and bounds. I'm just feeling good and excited and I just love my life with so much more passion knowing that anything can get taken away from you at any moment. You can get blindsided so to be able to go and express yourself and show who you are and enjoy it and continue to do it, there's no limit on the things I'm gonna be willing to try and accomplish and overcome in any area of fighting or in life.
Ben Thapa: Did you do anything unusual for your rest or recovery that may have derived from your battle with leukemia? What did you have to alter about the way that you train and everything else?
Bryan Baker: It's a constant battle of trying to still understand it fully. I pretty much got it down to where I'm feeling good. I'm on this medication called Gleevik and it's a pretty big toll on your body. My body has pretty much adjusted and gotten used to it but I do have to take it every day. It pretty much just, some days are just an off day.
I have to know, I have to really understand my body if I'm just feeling tired and lazy or if my body is calling for rest. It's really trying to get an understanding of that. Sometimes healing doesn't happen as quickly anymore as well. It's a constant battle. With my spirit right and understanding my body and knowing where my passion is and knowing what I wake up for every day, that's the challenge. It motivates me even more.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You went in to remission just before your fight with Alexander Shlemenko and I'm sure you weren't at your peak physically but now you're coming in and you're in terrific shape. Do you feel that this Bryan Baker, at 100 percent, do you feel that you could completely avenge that loss?
Bryan Baker: 100 percent. It was so frustrating at the point because I know 99 out of 100 times I could beat him. Especially with my high level of wrestling and jiu-jitsu skills with my submissions. I know I can take him down and control him. At minimum at least take him down and do what Hector Lombard did when he fought him. Take him down and hold him down. I could do that 99 our of 100 times and beat him and I believe I could submit him first or second round if I wanted and I can't wait to go show that.
I know I can do it, now I just can't wait. I hope he makes it to the finals and I'm back in the finals and we could meet back up and I could prove that and kinda have a retake of the round the first time and show how great I could be in my skills.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): How do you see the fight finishing against Jared Hess on Saturday night?
Bryan Baker: I see myself finishing him with a submission. Don't blink when he tries to take me down, that's all I have to say. (laughs)
Bryan would like to thank his trainer Thomas Denny, his teammates, all of Team Wildman and Premier MMA Fitness gym, All of the Above Clothing, Disciple Wear and Denver Chiropractic.
So what do you think Maniacs? Baker has already proven his resilience. Now that he's significantly healthier, can he dominate this tournament?
Be sure to check out these other interviews from our Bellator middleweight introductory series:
For the full audio of our interview with Bryan Baker, click here.
More information on Baker: