Ryan Bader left the UFC after being passed over for title shots time and time again.
Bellator MMA let him fight for the championship his first time in their cage, and he made the most of it.
Bader captured the Bellator light heavyweight title with a split-decision victory over Phil Davis at Bellator NYC on Saturday at Madison Square Garden, the first championship of his professional mixed martial arts career.
"To take this away, it was just a lifetime of work," Bader said. "I went out there and beat the best guy in the divison, beside me obviously, and now we get to go and clean out the division and have this belt for a long time."
Over a tedious five-round fight that was met with jeers from the Garden crowd, Bader was able to land more takedowns and outwork Davis, winning 49-46 on two scorecards with one judge scoring 48-47 for Davis.
"The fight didn't necessarily go how I wanted it to go, I wanted to come in and make a huge statement, but how many guys beat Phil Davis?" Bader said. "And I beat him twice, this time for a belt."
In the first two frames, neither fighter was able to gain an advantage in the wrestling game, keeping the experienced grapplers on their feet. Both fighters landed some body kicks, but there wasn’t much damage done.
Davis started to do some work in the third. He landed a heavy leg kick, then a nasty Superman punch to the head that sent the sweat flying from Bader’s brow. Bader finally was able to bring the fight to the canvas in the final seconds of the round, slamming Davis to the ground and landing some strikes. But in the scramble, it was Davis winding up on top at the bell.
Amid boos throughout the fight, referee Dan Miragliotta stepped in to warn about timidity shortly into the fourth round. At this point, Bader threw a few combinations instead of single punches, but neither fighter did anything of significance.
Bader had Davis in a bad position early in the final round when Davis slipped, but couldn’t take advantage of it and the stalemate continued. Bader landed a big takedown with 2:15 left in the fight, but Davis was soon back to his feet, fighting off Bader against the cage and breaking from the clinch. As the fight reached the final minute, the boos intensified. Bader landed a strong right hand before going for one last takedown, but left the crowd wanting more in the night’s first title fight.
Bader said he was nervous when the fight went to the judges' scorecards, but confident things would work out in his favor.
"You always are in a split decision," Bader said. "But If you look at his face, you can tell where the damage was done."