Justin Rader (4-2) already has four Legacy Fighting Championship bouts under his belt and returns to the Legacy cage in November at LFC 62. “Darth” Rader will be facing what could well be his toughest MMA challenge to date in facing the tough and durable Zac Church (8-2). Church is riding a seven-fight winning streak and is by no means an ‘easy’ fight for anyone.
Rader himself is no slouch by any means, having had a very successful grappling career which saw him win the World Nogi Championship at both brown and black belt levels amongst many other accolades. On the receiving end of back-to-back losses, Rader took ten months out from fighting to address some issues he was having with training and fighting. He stepped back into the Legacy cage in April of 2016 against Aaron Robinson (0-2) going all three round and emerging with a unanimous decision.
“I made that comeback. I didn’t put on the performance that I wanted after having an awful year last year. I got the win. I don’t think it was a bad thing to go in there and go all three rounds. It was good to experience how my body feels going in to the third round. It will help me be more mentally prepared, even having the experience of worrying about whether I’d done enough in the eyes of the judges to win.”
Getting back to his winning ways was a boost for Rader, but after the fight things didn’t go as planned.
“I was feeling great, and then got really sick. About a month later I was due to have a pro grappling event, Fight To Win. I thought it would be over in a few days, but it wasn’t and I had to have a CT scan. I had appendicitis. I had surgery two weeks before I was pain free, so was out for a month.
“I felt that I had lost progress, and then came another pro grappling competition but I wasn’t going to be healthy in time. I got myself back in shape and did an event with Fight To Win. I went the distance with Jeff Glover, who is one of the best in the world.”
Fight To Win is a professional grappling competition which has fast become one of the most prestigious professional submission grappling events in the U.S. It is a submission only competition, and doesn’t rely on points to win. Glover is an expert grappler and well respected for his skill in submitting opponents.
“I beat Glover five years ago, but that was with points. There wasn’t a submission in this match, the judges ruled at the end of time he threw up more attempts than I did. Neither of us was even close to getting a sub or in danger. To jump back in to grappling against one of the top three in the world means I’m feeling good. I know my grappling is still there.”
Rader and his mentor, Rafael Lovato Jr. both have a strong relationship with Mauricio Veio of Evolucao, and work with him on their striking.
“He was just here for two weeks and just went back to Toronto. I got some new combinations I’m working on. I’ve been working on trying to blend my wrestling and takedown game with my striking game. He’ll be back the week before and be with us the week of the fight.”
Rader is respectful of his opponent Zac Church, who is a solid opponent.
“He’s super tough, very difficult to put away. No one has knocked him out or TKO’ed him. He has a tough chin. He’s been in difficult situations and stays calm. He’s made good comebacks in fights when he was losing. The only person to put him away is former Legacy champion Damon Jackson, who beat him twice and submitted him.”
Church isn’t a new name for Rader, but someone he has been aware of for a while.
“He wrestled in high school at the same time I did. It’s going to be an interesting fight. It could end up being a standup fight. I’d like to see it on the ground, but he’s a wrestler who is as good as me, so it might not be easy. We could end up standing he whole fight, but I just say let’s do it! My standup is getting better. I feel I will peak when I go in there on the night.
“In his senior year, he was third in the state in Oklahoma for wrestling. If I get too sloppy he could end up taking me down. I feel it should be an exciting fight, especially based on the wrestling.”
Rader will be fighting on the same card as his mentor Lovato, and one has to wonder if that is a benefit or a detractor for him.
“It’s not a distraction at all. We did this for many years in grappling as well. He’s working and I’m working. To be honest, it’s maybe tougher on him as he’s training himself; but he’s also my Jiu Jitsu and grappling coach. Right now he’s in Curitiba. I’m doing strength and conditioning every day, with our strength and conditioning coach Luke Tyree.
“One of our other guys, Aaron McKenzie, is fighting on the card. It’s his third fight. I believe it’s the last fight on the undercard. We are able to get some good hard rounds in together. As soon as I get done, I probably will walk to the back of the cage to watch rather than go back to the dressing room, assuming I’m not hurt. It’s really cool in this sport that is very individual to have three guys on the same card from the same team. If we go 3-0 that night, it will be special.”
With his elite skill level in grappling, Rader is always in demand for events, which he also balances with his MMA competition.
“Going in to this fight, it’s hard to think about what’s next. I have things I want to do. Right now I can’t see past Zac Church. He’s dangerous. he’s strong, probably stronger than anyone I’ve faced before. If I walk out unscathed, I’m doing the ADCC trials a week later in New Jersey, but that’s a tentative plan. If I get injured it might not happen. I want to compete in the Abu Dhabi World Championships again. I don’t want what happened last year to be the way I go out.
On December 3rd, I might do another Fight To Win. Seth Daniels puts on a great promotion. Then it’s the holidays and going in to next year. These are very tentative plans though. I have to be sharp and focused on this fight, and I’m preparing for a good three rounds with Zac. I have a lot of respect for him.
“I’d like to thank everyone who has supported me, my coaches, my team and my sponsors. That includes OnTheMat, Lucky Gi, Mike Calimbas Photography, Pr2 Systems, and Brookover Enterprises.
“To be honest, I feel fantastic. I feel great and couldn’t be more excited for this fight.”