UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Bryan Baker is just 26 years old, and holds an impressive 16-3 record in his professional fighting career, yet he feels as if he's already reaching a crossroads. Maybe that happens when you're forced to grow up quickly, or when you're faced with the sobering reality that in fact, you are not unbreakable.
The quest to seize the moment has seemingly come as a revelation to Baker, who over the last few months, decided to shave a few pounds off his wiry frame to compete as a welterweight in Bellator's season six tournament. Up until now, he's always fought at 185 with little trouble. But his last match, an October 2011 loss to Vitor Vianna would be the last time.
The morning before that, Baker had woke up, checked his weight, and saw "181" staring back at him on the scale. While Vianna was probably sitting in a sauna to sweat off the final few pounds, Baker was eating a normal breakfast. That's always worked out fine, but after Vianna knocked him out, Baker saw the benefits of being the bigger man.
"Now it's time for me to be the heavier opponent, to stand in the middle of the cage and not be so worried about trying to move, and worried about power," he said. "I can really withstand the power at welterweight, and make them fear my length a lot more and just really own the cage."
At 6-foot-3, Baker will boast a size and reach advantage over the rest of the field. He may well be able to control the cage and keep opponents on the outside, a huge advantage in dictating the outcome.
But it wasn't long ago when that body started to betray him, and his fighting future became secondary. On April 19, 2010, tests following symptoms of fatigue showed that Baker had a form of cancer called chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the average five-year survival rate of patients with CML is just over 54 percent.
Amazingly, he went on to fight just 10 days after that diagnosis and won in a first-round TKO. He fought again the next month and won again. After a year on the drug Gleevec, tests showed he was in complete remission.
In 2011, Baker entered Bellator's season five middleweight tournament and won his first bout with a TKO of Jared Hess before being sidetracked by Vianna. That led to a series of changes. Aside from his downward weight shift, he also picked up his camp, leaving longtime trainer Thomas Denny to move to Albuquerque and set up with renowned fight team Jackson-Winkeljohn's.
"I'm hungry," he said. "I want it. I made a lot of decisions in my career. I've progressed so much in the last few months. It's time for my shine, for me to get my title."
In his first-round bout on Friday night at Mohegan Sun Arena, Baker will face Carlos Alexandre Pereira, a Brazilian veteran making his major MMA debut. If he advances, he could end up facing his own teammate, Chris Lozano, who was originally an alternate but moved into the field after another fighter dropped out.
Baker acknowledges the situation could prove to be a bit awkward, but due to his past Bellator tournament experience, he's trying not to focus on the bracketing beyond his next bout.
"It's one at a time," he said. "I made the mistake at middleweight. I felt I was the favorite fighter, and I was going in with the mentality of, `I better win,' and `this whole thing is mine.' I'm not making that mistake again. It's just this one fight."
Baker famously proposed to his then-girlfriend after a win in May 2011. Nearly a year later, they are expecting their first child. With that backdrop set as inspiration for his future, he marches into the cage, trying to achieve a championship and the financial rewards that go along with it. He was once best known as the fighter who beat cancer, and that suits him just fine. It's a good message to send. But there's more out there for him, he knows it.
"I'm in awe of my own life, just how God works in my life and how things get set out for me," he said. "It's really amazing how I can see my life as a picture, and put it together and just be really appreciative of everything I have."