The first thing you might notice about UFC light heavyweight Phil Davis is how broad he is from shoulder to shoulder.
A wrestler with a wingspan stretching to 79 inches, he’s packed in a physique that you immediately recognize as an athlete of a higher caliber. It’s a torso you’re more likely to see on an NFL running back than on a fighter, and Davis is one of the few in MMA who carry it.
I can recall Davis’ first fight with the UFC, an undercard bout, making it to the broadcast when he debuted with the organization at UFC 109.
He beat Brain Stann via unanimous decision. Nothing that’ll make you scour the web in hopes of finding a replay, but it was apparent that he was freakishly athletic, and more or less dominated Stann for all three rounds.
We saw him fight when he quickly dispatched Alexander Gustafsson in Abu Dhabi at UFC 112. That fight made me a believer that Davis has “sky is the limit” potential, and I’ve since been convinced that this kid will go as far as his desire will carry him.
In just over a year of fighting under the UFC banner, 26-year-old Phil Davis has racked up four impressive victories at light heavyweight.
With an 8-0 overall record, and an attitude that is humble yet confident, Davis has the opportunity to step into the upper echelon of light heavyweights when he steps into the cage to fight Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC Fight Night on March 26.
Plenty of fighters get the opportunity to swim with the sharks, and plenty of them get eaten.
This past September, we watched a previously undefeated Evan Dunham lose to Sean Sherk (a fight I actually thought Dunham won) and then subsequently fall to Melvin Guillard four months later.
Before the Sherk fight, Dunham was hyped as the next lightweight ready to join the top shelf fighters; now he’s fighting just to get another crack at a gatekeeper. The notion of him being ready to hang with the big boys is, for the time being, a distant memory.
Davis is ready now, and will dispatch Nogueira with shocking ease in next month’s fight.
Let me tell you why.
First, Davis has that wrestling background that's proven time and again to be one of, if not the best, catalyst for quick success in MMA.
“Wrestling does not make you a good fighter,” Davis told Tom Boetsch at UFC 123. “If you are a good fighter, wrestling makes you a great fighter. You have to be able to evolve as a fighter. Just being good at wrestling will not bring me to the top of MMA.”
Jon Jones, Ryan Bader, Frankie Edgar, and Cain Velasquez all began with A-plus wrestling pedigrees and advanced their skills from there.
Of course, the list of wrestlers succeeding in MMA extends far beyond those four, but the point is made.
As a senior at Penn State in 2008, Davis won the 197 lbs NCAA title, and was a four-time All-American along the way.
So, it’s not simply that he knows how to wrestle—it’s that he’s most likely better at it than any wrestler he’ll face in an MMA fight.
Combine his wrestling pedigree with the scary physique you read about earlier, and you have a fighter who is dominantly powerful and savvy enough to control his opponents throughout each fight.
For myself, I can’t recall a moment when Davis has looked defensive.
Surely, wrestling alone is not enough to compete with the UFC’s top light heavyweights.
How good is his standup?
Can he learn submissions, and more importantly, can he defend against top-level strikers and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu experts?
So far, Davis has passed with flying colors in all categories. According to Davis' UFC profile, in fours fights with the organization, Davis has yet to be taken-down, and has out-struck his opponents a jaw-dropping 154-14.
That is, in a word, absurd.
That's through two three-round fights, and two submission victories—one of which occurred at the end of the first round at UFC 112 when he squeezed an anaconda choke on Gustafsson.
The other took place at UFC 123 in highlight fashion as he cranked Boetsch's arm in a modified kimura he subsequently dubbed “The Mr. Wonderful” in his post fight interview.
Crazy and awesome submissions aside, I was floored to initially learn he's been able to avoid taking so much damage.
Not surprising when you watch him move in the cage, however, and once the cage door closes and the fight begins, he doesn’t stop.
Davis seems to understand a fundamental principle that helps a fighter win, whether it be in boxing or mixed martial arts: Move your feet.
He’ll move in to strike, and quickly jump back out of range of his opponent, displaying shades of Manny Pacquiao in that regard. His takedown attempts are quick and largely successful, surely a move he’s been perfecting since he first stepped foot on a wrestling mat.
Davis also has a humble attitude alluded to earlier.
In post fight interviews, both in cage and long after the cameras stop rolling, he constantly points to his need to improve in all areas. Never being satisfied creates an obvious hunger in him, and helps to build the beast with every training session he endures.
Watching his fights, it’s clear where Davis’ improvements need to be made.
His striking isn't where it needs to be, but with each passing test it seems to improve by leaps and bounds. What was a single jab and maybe a cross against Gustafsson, became a jab, cross, leg kick combo against Boetsch.
It's also clear that he wants to grapple with his opponents, because as a wrestler, that’s home for him. Against a BJJ ace like Rogerio Nogueira, that certainly has the chance to backfire.
To play with the big boys, a fighter's game must be unpredictable, and Davis' is not yet there.
Nogueira has been fighting long enough not to be intimidated by a rising star, no matter his background or current record.
We’re talking about a guy who spent almost six years in PRIDE, racking up wins against some of the best the game had to offer at that time. He holds notable victories over Kazushi Sakuraba, Dan Henderson, and Alistair Overeem twice.
Times have changed, however. In September, he lost via decision to Ryan Bader, and was nearly submitted by no-name Jason Brilz before that.
While Little Nog’s star is fading, Davis' is rising, and I fully expect them to continue on their respective paths next month.
The special fighters are the ones who have visible improvement each time they step back into the cage. We see it in Jon Jones, Georges St. Pierre, and Frankie Edgar.
Now we see it in Davis, and so long as he continues to walk the path he’s on, he won’t be stopped anytime soon—certainly not by a little Nogueira.
“My future includes winning,” Davis said. “Losing isn’t factored in. I’m going to be at the top one day, and I’m going to be champion of the world.”
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