On Saturday night, we'll see if Phil Davis' exceptional wrestling ability is completely his blessing and not at all his curse.
Davis (9-0) won the NCAA championship at 197 pounds in 2008 while attending Penn State University. When he started in mixed martial arts, the book on him was that his wrestling ability was so strong that he'd beat most guys with that alone, but he would need to add more to his plate in order to reach the top of the ladder.
But in a light heavyweight division where every top fighter except champion Jon Jones has been beaten, the process of contender eliminations has put Davis (9-0) right near the top in what is by far the highest-profile position he has been in.
On UFC's second special on the Fox network, from a sold-out United Center in Chicago, Davis faces Rashad Evans (21-1-1) in Saturday night's five-round main event.
Evans has been considered the No. 1 contender for the title for what may be a record-setting 20 months. After beating Quinton "Rampage" Jackson in the most financially successful non-title match in UFC history, Evans never has gotten a shot to regain the championship he once held due to bad timing and injuries to both him and Jackson.
At a press conference last week, Evans, a 2-to-1 favorite Saturday, seized on Davis' inexperience at the sport.
"No, he ain't ready yet, he ain't ready; he know he ain't ready," Evans said. "I'm looking into his eyes. He ain't ready. You're just a boy."
"We're going to see what happens when them lights hit you and when you walk out and that crowd is roaring; we're going to see," Evans continued.
"We're going to see what kind of man you are. We're going to see what kind of fighter you are. Because I know you ain't a fighter. I know. When you get hit in the mouth, things change. When you got hit by 'Li'l Nog' [Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, whom Davis beat by decision in his last fight 10 months ago, before a knee injury kept him out of action for the remainder of 2011], you didn't know what to do. When I hit you in the mouth, you're going to feel it."
That may be easier said than done. Because of Davis' ability to control a fight on the ground, and his underrated ability to thus far avoid being hit, he has been rarely been hit solidly during his MMA career. From a statistical basis of not being hit with significant strikes per minute he has been in the cage, he's No. 1 in the history of the UFC. While some will say that's a positive, Evans is trying to play that as Davis' weakness, that Davis is an athlete, not a real fighter.
"I approach it the same," Davis said. "It's an athletic competition. I trained for this. My opponent trained for this. That is to me the bottom line. I don't see it as anything else."
"Look, there's some people that will fight if they weren't getting paid to fight, and I'm one of those people," Evans said. "Phil is not one of those people."
It was the second verbal explosion between the two, the first at the original press conference in Chicago several weeks ago, where the two argued back-and-forth and the result was Evans bringing up a comparison to the Penn State scandal that dominated the news at the time.
"Yes, I have less experience," said Davis, who is nicknamed "Mr. Wonderful" as a tribute to a pet cat he had in college and not after '80s pro wrestler Paul Orndorff. "I had less experience than 100 percent of everyone I've ever faced in MMA, period. And that will be the case. Even Jon Jones was already in the UFC when I was starting in MMA, so even though he's also young in his career, he's had more experience than me. But it doesn't matter; experience isn't why I win or lose."
Davis, 27, has been put in a unique position. Barring another injury, if Evans wins, he'll get a title shot as soon as possible, as early as April 21 in Atlanta. But if Davis wins, Dana White seemed to be hinting that they would go with the better-known Dan Henderson for the next title shot. Davis doesn't see that plan holding up.
"After I beat Rashad, the fans will be in a complete uproar for me to fight Jon Jones," he said. "Not that it even matters. I truthfully don't care who I fight because I don't plan on losing."
Evans is trying to position this bout as a fighter versus an athlete. And Davis doesn't disagree completely. Davis agreed that he wouldn't be in this profession if he weren't getting paid. While he was in his senior year of college, he wrestled with a decision of what to do next, either attempt to further his career and try for his childhood Olympic dream or go into MMA.
"At one point, [going to the Olympics as a wrestler] was something I wanted more than anything, but you've got to be real with yourself," he said. "It's not that the training would be too rigorous, or too much, but I knew that MMA was something I wanted to do," he said. "I wasn't willing to do what was necessary for the Olympics. At the time I graduated, I would have loved to have won the Olympics and then train MMA. Those were the two things I really wanted to do. But when you are training for the Olympics, it's not something you train a couple of months or a year for. You have to commit yourself to that dream. It may not be at the next Olympics; it may not even be four years later. You have to live that dream until it's done. I wasn't willing to commit what could be 12 or 15 years to that."
There is a perception of Evans that he's quick and has good stand-up, but in three of his last four fights, he was rocked by punches. In those fights, he was able to use his wrestling to control most of the fight and take the decision. In his lone loss, to Lyoto Machida, he was put away before he could get any wrestling game going.
So while Davis noted that he's scouted Evans hard, he doesn't think what Evans has done and the style he has fought is going to work on Saturday. He expects a different Evans from what has been seen in the past.
"You don't know how a fight's going to go," Davis said. "The match isn't how Evans fought Joe Schmo because Joe Schmo didn't have a national-level background in wrestling. So how Rashad approaches this fight is going to be completely different. The things he does against other guys he's not going to do against me. You can say he's going to do this because that's what he always does, but no, he's not going to do that. He has to change his game. You'll get a completely different fighter."
Because Evans has been in UFC as a star and a headliner for more than six years and has used his wrestling to win most of his fights, some fans may think that this will be a repeat of the Jackson fight, Silva fight and so many others. But Davis said those people don't know wrestling and are in for a surprise.
"If it comes down to wrestling, I'll beat him 100 out of 100 times," Davis said.
"His level of wrestling is very high for the sport of MMA, but if you're looking at his level of wrestling, it isn't very high in wrestling terms," he noted. "In terms of MMA, to those guys he's competing against, he's a monster at wrestling. But for guys who have wrestled their whole lives and in college, it's not that high."
On paper, there is a difference. Evans was a junior college national champion who then went 48-34 at Michigan State University. He qualified for the NCAA tournament but never placed. Davis was 116-17 at the Division I level, with a national championship his senior year. But MMA is littered with examples of great wrestlers, national champions and even Olympians getting outwrestled by people with far less wrestling pedigrees – even no wrestling pedigrees.
Davis thinks part of that issue is because so many wrestlers overly fixate on striking once they start. Davis, currently based out of Alliance MMA in Chula Vista, Calif., said he constantly trains everything: his stand-up, his Jiu Jitsu and his wrestling.
"If you concentrate too much on striking, you become a striker," he said. "Why would I give up my advantage that I have over everyone?"
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