Phil Davis, a onetime NCAA wrestling champion, has won his first nine fights. | Photo: Sherdog.com
The time has come to find out just how good “Mr. Wonderful” is inside the Octagon.
There are points in any athlete’s career when he or she needs to take a serious step up in competition. Many great collegiate football and basketball players fell short when thrust into deeper professional waters. Likewise, many fighters have shown great promise in low-profile fights before collapsing under the bright lights and fierce competition of major league mixed martial arts.
Phil Davis entered MMA with lofty expectations. A celebrated national champion wrestler from Penn State University, it was no secret that he was a fighter to watch from day one. However, elite wrestling skills are no guarantee of Octagon success. Ask Kevin Jackson or Jake Rosholt. Wrestlers have the tricky task of needing to diversify their skills while, at the same time, not losing sight of their strongest assets.
The early returns for Davis have been good. He has taken out foes like former WEC champion Brian Stann and the world-ranked Alexander Gustafsson, and he won his first main event against a highly respected veteran in Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. Make no mistake: all that was preamble. Now, the measure of Davis’ mettle will be taken in a high-profile showdown with one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world at UFC on Fox 2 this Saturday in Chicago.
The opponent: Rashad Evans, a fully developed fighter at the peak of his athletic ability and combat skill. The stage: the Fox network, in a main event before a massive television audience. The stakes: a likely UFC title shot and the opportunity for multimillion-dollar paydays. The challenge in front of Davis figures to be markedly stiffer than any other he has faced in MMA, and the way he performs will define the future trajectory of his career.
In many ways, Davis is an unlikely individual to end up in the MMA spotlight. While some of the other top fighters on the UFC’s second Fox show are brash trash talkers and self-promoters, Davis is easygoing and understated. Evans, Michael Bisping and Chael Sonnen are natural showmen; it is hard to imagine Davis settling into that role. His manner in MMA reflects his approach to the sport. Bluster and bravado do not do much for the man, whereas competition and action engage him.
“When I watch a fighter, I just watch the fights,” Davis told Sherdog.com in an exclusive interview. “I don’t care so much about guys’ personalities and what they eat and drink and do in their spare time. I like Rashad because he’s a good, entertaining fighter.”
Throughout the build to their fight, Evans has tried to bait Davis. Occasionally, Davis has given it back a little. However, trash talking does not come as naturally to the Nittany Lion as it does to Quinton “Rampage” Jackson or Jon Jones. He does not have the disposition for it. Eric Del Fierro has coached Davis for more than two years and has yet to witness him lose his temper.
“It’s pretty hard to get under my skin,” Davis acknowledged. “I’m one of those people that don’t accept insults.”
Beyond his unlikely personality for MMA, Davis has traveled an unlikely path just getting to it. He was aware of the sport from an early age, having watched and enjoyed a tape of the Royce Gracie-Kimo Leopoldo match at UFC 3. However, full-contact fighting was not something he contemplated as a potential career until many years later.
In junior high school, Davis joined the wrestling team, but not because of any particular attraction to wrestling. Rather, a friend asked Davis to try out with him. He did not enjoy wrestling at first but stuck with it and eventually became a champion. His MMA career began similarly, with a friend daring him to pursue a fight and Davis obliging. He then saw the money in the sport and decided to seriously dedicate himself.
The infusion of money into MMA has led to a flow of elite wrestlers entering the sport. It is impossible to know how many of them would not have bothered getting into MMA if it were not viewed as a path to fortune and fame. If Davis graduated from college five years earlier, might he be working behind a desk right now? He acknowledges the possibility.
“It’s tough to say,” Davis said after a significant pause. “I don’t know. I do love to compete. I wouldn’t rule it out, but, at the same time, I think I enjoy getting paid.”
Evans independently pushed this same point a couple days later on a UFC conference call promoting the fight.
“Look, there’s some people that would fight if they weren’t getting paid to fight,” he declared, “and I’m one of those people. Phil is not one of those people.”
Evans was making a specific point with his accusation. A “real” fighter will compete not for profit or fame but for the love of the sport and competition. When the going gets tough, that fighter can be expected to keep battling to the end. By contrast, a fighter in it for the money might not be willing to make the extra sacrifice. Regardless of the truth in this claim -- Floyd Mayweather Jr. will not box for free, but that does not make him any more beatable in a prizefight -- the natural inclination would be for Davis to deny it. He instead elected to embrace it.
“You’re absolutely right,” he retorted. “I’d be pushing a pen, but since I get paid to fight, looks like you [are] next.”
It was a telling response. Davis showed no need to justify himself through his words. There was no insecurity to be exploited. His actions would speak for him soon enough.
In order to prepare for Evans, Davis has continued to train at Alliance MMA in San Diego. He met reigning UFC bantamweight champion and Alliance MMA representative Dominick Cruz at a wrestling camp in Philadelphia and came to California to prepare for a fight under the Palace Fighting Championship banner in early 2009. Davis later decided to form a permanent partnership with Alliance, with Del Fierro and Lloyd Irvin overseeing his UFC rise. The arrangement has already produced dividends, and Davis, with a little more than three years of experience, appears to be just getting started.
“I don’t think I’m even close to where I can get in terms of skill and technique,” Davis said. “I’m still developing as a fighter. I’m about a five on my scale, out of 10.”
Del Fierro concurs and believes fans are only getting glimpses of Davis’ capabilities.
“He’s at the beginning of his career,” Del Fierro noted. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. Two years into the sport isn’t a big learning curve. Wrestling allows him to adapt faster, but he’s just getting started.”
Against Evans, the question will center on whether Davis has developed enough as a fighter to deal with someone much closer to his ultimate potential. Evans was nowhere near Davis’ level as a collegiate, but his wrestling for MMA has proven excellent and he should have a decided advantage in the standup over his undefeated opponent.
In San Diego, Davis and his trainers are working furiously to close the distance with fighters that have been training standup for much longer periods of time. Davis has already shown an aptitude for jiu-jitsu, and his primary focus in preparing for Evans has been on the standup game.
“Wrestling to jiu-jitsu is an easier transition than wrestling to striking,” Del Fierro said. “Our bigger focus has been on striking development and to blend all the arts together. Jiu-jitsu is more instinctual to him, but he is such a phenomenal athlete that his striking is leaps and bounds above what it was six months ago.”
That development in Davis’ game -- even since his last fight against Nogueira -- could provide a hidden advantage for the 27-year-old Harrisburg, Pa., native. While Evans adds new wrinkles to his game from fight to fight, Davis is evolving in short order. As such, there could conceivably be some significant surprises for Evans to deal with in the cage.
“Phil still has the element of the unknown to him,” Del Fierro said. “You know he can wrestle and has done certain things, but he hasn’t shown a lot overall yet. He hasn’t fought a fighter the caliber of Rashad, so people don’t know what to expect, and that plays into our favor. We haven’t shown our full game. It’s going to be a great fight for Phil.”
Aside from Evans, Davis also has to contend with a spotlight he has never faced before. Some fighters are able to block it out by focusing on the fight alone. Others embrace the spotlight and use it to their advantage. Davis finds himself in a tricky intermediate position, well aware of the magnitude of his next fight but unwilling to let it influence his approach.
“I have to say it’s just another fight,” Davis said. “I won’t let myself get into that mode where I think about everything else that surrounds the fight, as far as media and millions of people watching the fight, but, honestly, it’s not just like every other fight. Hopefully, it’s the most watched MMA fight in history. That’s what I’d want, but I have to take it as just another fight.”
Blocking out external distractions for easily the most significant event of one’s professional life is no easy task. Beating a world-class opponent on top of his game and hungry for a long-awaited title shot is even more difficult. Davis has passed all tests to this point. It is now time for the world to find out what he is truly made of.