Ryan Bader came to Bellator looking for respect.
He’s not going to get much of that from longtime rival Phil Davis.
“I think people come in and think it’ll just be another fight, but it’s not another fight,” Davis said. “It’s your first day at school, and I’m the cool kid because I have a belt.”
The pair will fight for Davis’ light heavyweight championship at Bellator NYC on Saturday at Madison Square Garden. The fight headlines the Spike TV portion of the card. It also is a rematch of two former UFC contenders from early 2015, a fight Bader won via split decision.
The bout will be the first with the promotion for Bader (22-5) since signing earlier this year following a 20-fight UFC run that spanned eight-plus years.
“It’s refreshing, it’s exciting,” Bader said of switching promotions. “Just overall kind of respect and opportunity. I felt like I deserved a title shot a few times in the UFC and was kind of passed over. Sponsors were a big deal. And just overall treatment of fighters.”
Following a loss to top contender Anthony Johnson in January 2016, Bader won two straight to finish his final UFC contract. The company offered a new deal, but Bader received a better one from Bellator and signed a six-fight contract.
“I plan to be here for the rest of my career,” Bader said.
That could be a problem for Davis (17-3, 1 NC), who left the UFC following his loss to Bader. Since the jump, Davis is 4-0, including two wins in one night to take the Bellator Light Heavyweight Grand Prix in September 2015. He won first world championship last November, beating Liam McGeary by unanimous decision.
The move was smooth for “Mr. Wonderful,” but the champ thinks Bader should be careful in his Bellator debut.
“A lot of people don’t do well in their first fight here, a little bit of jitters,” Davis said. “They kind of have to show off to the new boss a little bit.”
But a stage was one of the reasons Bader came to Bellator. When the Garden show was announced in the days after his signing, Bader immediately knew he wanted in.
“It’s one of those bucket list kind of arenas,” Bader said.
A fight was announced with Muhammad Lawal for the MSG show, but when an injury forced Lawal off the card, Davis stepped in and raised the stakes.
“Best of both worlds, I’m fighting for a title here and I wanted to be on this card,” Bader said. “I could’ve waited for Phil potentially until November, but I wanted to fight sooner rather than later.”
Their first fight was part of a card that aired in the U.S. during primetime, but took place in Stockholm around 4 a.m. local time. Both men were timid on the feet and noncommittal with their wrestling, leading to a disappointing fight with a controversial decision and no clear winner.
“I’m bummed and disappointed any time I lose, but I was also ready to move on,” Davis said of his feelings following the loss. “It was weird, it was definitely a weird thing. Nobody wanted to be there.”
Davis didn’t take any solace in some scoring the fight for him, saying “it wasn’t a close loss, I lost. It wasn’t close to me if I didn’t win.”
Bader still doesn’t feel great about that fight, or the win.
“The last fight was pretty terrible. I walked out of there with a win, but it was one of those things where I was like, ‘eh,’ but it was a number of factors,” Bader said.
Both fighters guess things will be different this time.
“I’m a different fighter now, I’ve had the chance to really just keep growing,” Davis said. “A lot of times when you’re forced to fight, fight, fight and train for a particular guy, you don’t get a chance to grow between fights. I’ve been able to have a decent amount of downtime where I’m in the gym working on specific skills, not necessarily working on getting in shape or being fit.”
Said Bader, “I feel like I’ve grown in the last six months, seven months more than I have in the last five years prior to that. I got a new coaching staff, drilling a ton and doing a lot of technique work. Mentally, I’m just not making a big deal about the fights, I’m going out there, having fun and enjoying the process of fight week and letting loose, not worrying about every little thing.”