Ryan Bader was born in Reno, Nevada. He entered mixed martial arts after a successful career in amateur wrestling.
He attended Robert McQueen High School where he won two state championships and was ranked as high as 4th in the country for wrestling.
He attended Arizona State University where he was college teammates with current UFC Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez and CB Dollaway. While attending ASU, Bader was a three-time Pac 10 Champion winning titles in 2003, 2004, and 2006. He was also a two-time All-American, placing 4th in 2004 as a sophomore and 7th in 2006 as a senior.
He began training at Arizona Combat Sports in early 2007.
Bader's UFC career began as a contestant on season 8 of The Ultimate Fighter. Bader, the first light heavyweight selected by coach Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, went on to win his first 3 fights on the show to fight with Vinicius Magalhães on December 13, 2008 at The Ultimate Fighter 8 Finale.
At the finale, Bader defeated Magalhães by way of a quick, first-round knockout, earning the title of "The Ultimate Fighter" and winning the traditional "six-figure UFC contract". An overhand right dropped Magalhães, and Bader followed up with strikes on the ground to take the win less than halfway through the first frame.
Bader's first post-TUF fight was at UFC Fight Night 18 against Carmelo Marrero, whom he defeated via a clear cut unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27). During the match, Bader tore his medial collateral ligament and posterior cruciate ligament, which kept him sidelined until the next fall.
Shortly after the Marrero fight, Bader appeared alongside fellow Ultimate Fighter 8 winner Efrain Escudero in the UFC's sixth video game, UFC 2009 Undisputed. He and Escudero were available through special code obtained by pre-ordering the game from Gamestop. On September 10, 2009, he and Escudero were made available for download on PlayStation Network and Xbox 360 Marketplace.
Bader returned against Eric Schafer on October 24, 2009, at UFC 104. The fight was mainly dominated by Bader, who scored with a powerful attack of combinations standing and controlled the grappling, en route a unanimous decision victory (29–26, 30–27 and 30–27).
Next for Bader was Keith Jardine, who he fought on February 21, 2010 at the UFC's debut effort in Australia, UFC 110. Bader scored a sharp jab on the tiring Jardine, which set up a flying knee to the chest and a left hook at 2:10 of the third round to secure a KO victory for Bader.
Along with Jesse Forbes, CB Dollaway, Eric Larkin and Aaron Simpson, Bader left Arizona Combat Sports to train at their newly opened gym Power MMA And Fitness.
Bader moved his UFC record to 5-0 at the expense of Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 119, controlling him most of the fight with his wrestling and using his jab and short combinations to stop much of Nogueira's offense. All three judges scored the fight 30–27 for Bader.