Phil Davis’ first year with the UFC has already been a very good one.
The 26-year-old former Penn State wrestler has already earned a trio of victories, a pair of lopsided unanimous decisions sandwiched around a first round Anaconda choke submission of Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 112.
Saturday night, Davis has a chance to add a fourth win to his yearly total, facing off against Tim Boetsch in his main card debut at UFC 123. Though the 12-3 Boetsch has the edge in experience, Davis is favoured heading into the bout, and with good reason. In a sport where fans and analysts are always looking for “The Next Big Thing,” many have tabbed Davis as the man to carry that moniker in 2011.
Arguing with that assessment is a difficult task, as the talented young light heavyweight has the pedigree and past performances to make you believe greatness rests in his future.
As collegiate wrestling continues to stand as the dominant base in the sport today, a scan of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania native’s resume yields an impressive 116-17 record on the NCAA mats, a total accumulated over four All-American campaigns that included the 2008 individual National Championship in the 197-pound division.
What separates Davis from the countless other former collegiate champions to transition to the sport in recent years is the impressive jiu jitsu skills that accompany his wrestling credentials to the canvas. A blue belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu under Master Lloyd Irvin, Davis earned first place at the 2009 No Gi World Championships in his division’s super heavyweight class, an accomplishment that reminds everyone that there will be no lay-and-pray when Davis brings his fights to the floor.
Physically speaking, Davis is a specimen and will only continue to get better. Like many collegiate wrestlers, he boasts thighs that look more like tree trunks, while his upper body is marked by broad shoulders and a frame that could support addition muscle, something Davis will surely add over the next few years.
Inside the cage, it’s hard not to be impressed by the efforts Davis has turned out to date. While it would be easy to get lost in the hype and hysteria of debuting in the UFC, not only did Davis breeze through his first trip into the mixed martial arts spotlight, but through Brian Stann as well.
Though Stann has since made the move down to middleweight, the former WEC light heavyweight champion is a difficult opening test, and Davis earned top marks for his performance, which included a textbook armbar at the close of the second round that would have ended the fight had Davis found it only a fraction earlier.
He followed that up with another impressive performance, stopping the then-unbeaten Swede Gustafsson his lone loss to date. The win showcased the dangerous blend of skills Davis possesses on the ground, as the transition from takedown to submission was fluid and flawless.
Four months later, Davis was at it again, stepping in on two-week’s notice to square off with Rodney Wallace at UFC 117 in Oakland. Just as he had in his debut, Davis utilized his wrestling to dominate his opponent, running his winning streak to three and cementing his place as a fighter on the rise in the treacherous 205-pound division.
Though the comparison to Jon Jones is one that will surely come up, the two are very different. Not to take anything away from Davis, but fighters like Jones don’t come around all that often, and it would be best if everyone keep that in mind moving forward. Davis has the chance to be great, but Jones has the opportunity to be something truly special.
That being said, Davis has certainly impressed in his troika of triumphs, and with the depth that exists at the top of the division, taking the same slow-and-steady approach the UFC used with Jones makes perfect sense with “Mr. Wonderful.”
Using the Jones’ fight path as a guide, consider UFC 123 Davis’ “Matt Hamill” fight.
Just as Jones stepped up to face a stern, veteran challenge in his fourth Octagon appearance, Davis does the same here.
While Boetsch is far from a household name with casual fans and sports a 3-2 record inside the Octagon, he too boasts a collegiate wrestling past and is the kind of powerful veteran who can turn a prospect’s prospects south in a hurry.
Now on his second tour of duty with the organization, Boetsch entered the UFC as an intriguing option himself, sporting a 6-1 record; his lone defeat coming at the hands of current light heavyweight stalwart Vladimir Matyushenko in the IFL. While a 50/50 split of four fights sent him looking for work elsewhere, both of Boetsch’s wins were first round finishes, and his defeats came to the aforementioned Hamill and Jason Brilz, both of whom are entrenched in the middle of the division.
Originally tabbed to face Thiago Silva in his return, the Brazilian pulled out with an injury and Boetsch halted the eight-fight unbeaten streak of Todd Brown instead. The combination of Boetsch’s solid wrestling and punch power mixed with knowing the pain of being released by the company makes him a dangerous opponent for the highly-touted prospect.
Just as his fight with Hamill was supposed to show us where Jones was at in his development, this bout is set to do the same for Davis.
At this point, we know about the tremendous wrestling and quality jiu jitsu game, and it’s time to show us something more. On paper, Boetsch has the wrestling background and overall experience to potentially frustrate the former Nittany Lion, and as good as Davis has looked thus far, he’ll need to be the best version of himself that we’ve seen yet to earn his fourth victory of the year.
Even though Jones technically lost his encounter with Hamill, that bout showed the awesome potential the current contender possesses, and Davis should follow in his footsteps in his own “Hamill fight.”
While we are sometimes too quick to bestow status upon prospects that impress us out of the gate, the hype surrounding Davis is real and it is legitimate. His debut campaign in the UFC has already been a strong one and it should end on a high note on Saturday.
And his sophomore season in the big leagues will be even better.
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