Ryan Bader of Queen Creek recently won his first MMA championship belt.

June 24 was a night full of firsts for MMA fighter and Queen Creek resident Ryan Bader.

It was his first fight in the Bellator MMA organization, after transferring over from the UFC. It was also the first time he had ever fought in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, which he called a bucket-list arena for most fighters.

Most importantly though, at the end of the night with family, friends and thousands of fans watching, Bader earned his first career championship belt with a split decision victory over Phil Davis.

“To do all that and to get that belt wrapped around my waist for the first time,” Bader said. “It was just very relieving and kind of a whole lifetime of work coming together.”

One thing that Bader didn’t do for the first time on that night in Madison Square Garden, was squaring up with 6-foot-2, 205-pounder Phil Davis.

The two had fought in the UFC in 2015, with Bader coming out on top by spilt decision. Bader has had success against Davis in mixed martial arts, but back when they were both Division I wrestlers, it was the other way around.

“He’s a tough competitor, so I fought a close fight a couple of years ago and then here we are again,” Bader said. “He’s one of those guys I’ve actually been competing against my whole life. I actually wrestled against him in college, he beat me in the national tournament when he was at Penn State and I was at Arizona State.”

Bader accounts for half of Davis’s losses in his fighting career, his only other two come against Anthony Johnson in 2014 and Rashad Evans in 2012. So, Davis has established himself as one of the top fighters in the game over the past three years.

The 6-foot-2 Arizona State alum knew heading into his first championship matchup that he was going up against one of the top three fighters in the world, and had a certain game plan going in.

“He’s a very awkward fighter,” Bader said. “He’s hard to get a handle on, he’s hard to take down and he’s very awkward in his striking. So, we needed to be extremely patient, no matter what happened, we needed to not get sucked into his game, we just needed to stay patient and out-technique him on our feet and get a couple takedowns.”

Now, after crossing off a list of firsts, and getting the light-heavyweight title wrapped around his waist, there’s nothing on Bader’s mind other than moving forward in his Bellator career. He’s already planning his next fight down the road.

“I’m a competitor, it was fun to get that belt,” Bader said. “Now, I’m the champ and I have to defend this belt for the entirety of my career. So, were already looking at big fights and hoping to get in there September or November and get it rolling.”

The Reno, Nevada, transplant landed in the Phoenix area in 2001 after attending Arizona State University on a wrestling scholarship. After meeting a ton of friends and his wife, who he now has three children with, Bader knew he wasn’t leaving.

“I kind of knew that I was going to stay here after school, I just fell in love with the city and never left.”

– Contact Greg Macafee at gmacafee@timespublications.com or at 480-898-5630 or follow @greg_macafee on Twitter.

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