UFC light heavyweights Phil Davis and Alexander Gustafsson are not so different.
The former debuted with the UFC in February of 2010 with a victory, while the latter debuted four months prior, notching a win of his own. Davis has donned the UFC gloves eight times, as has Gustafsson. And each fighter has lost just once in his career. Just three years ago, both were the clear-cut top prospects at the 205-pound mark, competing neck-and-neck to see who could climb the light heavyweight ranks in less time.
But one thing in particular should have set them apart.
On April 10, 2010, in Abu Dhabi, the two prospects came face-to-face in the Octagon to determine who would advance in the light heavyweight division, and who would, at least for that moment, be left behind; the promotion was clearly drawing a line in the sand.
That night, Davis won, submitting Gustafsson in the opening round and gaining a big edge over his fellow prospect.
Just over three years later, however, it seems Gustafsson is the one with the edge.
Gustafsson, currently on a six-fight winning streak, is ranked No. 2 in the UFC official light heavyweight rankings, coming in behind Lyoto Machida (No. 1) and Jon Jones (champion).
Davis? He's barely cracking the top 10, sliding into the No. 8 slot, just ahead of Gegard Mousasi (No. 9) and Ryan Bader (No. 10).
So what has been the difference? How has Davis gone from submitting Gustafsson in 2010 to falling six spots below him in the current rankings?
More importantly, can he reverse the trend?
At UFC 159 this Saturday in Newark, New Jersey, "Mr. Wonderful" will certainly try, as he meets The Ultimate Fighter Season 8 runner-up Vinny Magalhaes on the evening's main card.
Magalhaes, who has three UFC fights in his career to Davis' eight, spent the second half of 2009 to the end of 2011 working his way back to the promotion.
When he did return, he reintroduced himself with a dominant submission win over Igor Pokrajac at UFC 152.
Davis, meanwhile, has been with the UFC since 2010, but has struggled to progress into one of the division's elite the way Gustafsson has. And it has much to do with his recent outings.
Though he started his UFC career with five consecutive wins, capped off with a dominant victory against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Davis is 1-1 with one no contest in his past three fights, with the loss coming against Rashad Evans, the no contest coming against Wagner Prado and the victory coming against Prado in the rematch.
The no contest certainly could be credited to bad luck, and, to Davis' credit, he wasted little time erasing that memory with a submission win over Prado at UFC 153. Also, a loss to Evans, at least at the time, was definitely not a bad loss. However, a streak of 1-1 with one no contest between January last year to today will take its toll on Davis’ stock.
Meanwhile, Gustafsson is a perfect 3-0 in his last three fights, defeating Vladimir Matyushenko, Thiago Silva and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
Yet even though Gustafsson has been better than Davis recently, are there really five light heavyweights separating the two?
The numbers would suggest no, at least in terms of strength of competition.
Davis’ opponents (excluding Gustafsson) have an overall UFC record of 29-19-1, giving them a combined winning percentage of 59.2 percent. Meanwhile, Gustafsson’s opponents (excluding Davis) have a combined UFC record of 38-25, good for a winning percentage of 60.3 percent.
While Gustafsson’s opposition seems like the more experienced bunch, Davis’ opponents combined have a winning percentage 1.1 points less than the Swedish contenders'.
Factor those numbers in with the win Davis has over Gustafsson and it seems at least moderately remarkable how far ahead “The Mauler” is.
While Davis is fighting for contention, the man he defeated at UFC 112 is knocking on the door for a title shot. To make matters more perplexing, the aforementioned Nogueira, whom Davis dealt a loss to in the first quarter of 2011, is ranked in the fifth spot of the official light heavyweight ratings, meaning Davis holds wins over two individuals placed ahead of him.
But mixed martial arts is a sport focused on the now; fans and analysts, alike, rank based off recent performance. That explains how a win over Quinton "Rampage" Jackson has Glover Teixeira tucked in the No. 4 spot, an absurdly high mark for a fighter with one (borderline) quality win in the UFC. I won't say Davis deserves Teixeira's spot, but I certainly believe the Pennsylvania native would top Rua, thanks to his wrestling, and Nogueira, because he's done it before.
At UFC 159 this Saturday, Davis has a chance to jump back up the light heavyweight ranks with a win against Magalhaes, a fighter as dangerous as he is underrated, and claim a contender’s spot alongside Gustafsson. In fact, a rematch between the two would be the most sensible matchup for both fighters, based on time frame and rank.
With a loss to Magalhaes...well, at that point I'd stop comparing the two.