By Elias Cepeda
As he stepped on the mats for the 197-pound finals of the NCAA Division I national wrestling championship in St. Louis back in late March of 2008, Phil Davis knew two things:
1. He would win.
2. After he won, he would be done with wrestling.
Davis did win, becoming a national champion for Penn State, but unlike so many other national champions of the past, he did not pursue the “Olympic dream.” Perhaps he had the potential and physical gifts to go after a spot on the U.S. national team and even win an Olympic medal one day, but the young man had another plan.
“It came down to a couple things,” he says. “The amount of time and energy it would have taken me to win a medal in the Olympics would equal the time and energy it would have taken me to win the belt in the UFC. Except, if, or I should say, when I win the belt, I’ll be doing a little bit better financially than if I had won that gold medal. For me, it wouldn’t have made a whole lot of sense…There are just more opportunities [in MMA].”
Before he hit the mats for his final national tournament, Davis had already decided to pursue MMA professionally. It was a career choice that might have shocked even Davis, years prior.
Despite having watched the very first UFC events with Royce Gracie and Kimo, Davis’ only thoughts while watching back then as a child were, “Man, these guys are crazy! I would never want to do this.” But as he grew older and more accomplished, Davis learned that with dedication he could do a lot more than he had thought he could.
“It’s one of those things; I never thought I would be a national champion until I was an All-American. Then when I was an All-American I was like, Man, I can really make a run at this thing. And the next year I was in the national finals and after that I never wanted to be anywhere but in the finals,” he recalls.
So, after having accomplished his goals in wrestling, Davis knew he could conceivably do well in MMA. And though he was setting out to be a fighter, Davis was far from reckless about it, so he did what he does best – plan, and then work with a determination to execute.
“I just started training, doing any and all work I could do,” he says. He began with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, soon got a striking coach, and then a couple of chance meetings helped things “fall into place,” for Davis.
“I got working with some pretty cool people and ended up running into some bozo named Dominick Cruz,” Davis says facetiously of the WEC bantamweight champion. “After I met Dominick Cruz, he told me that I should come hang out with some other bozo named Brandon Vera. I was like, I don’t know who these people are but they are really nice to me so I will go to California and train with them (laughs). I got here and it was crazy – everybody in the gym could beat me. Everybody in the gym, even 135 pounders. Try sparring with Dominick Cruz. It’s not fun. I was like, this is where I belong. ”
It must have become “not fun” to spar with Davis either after just a little while, because in short order those around him were encouraging him to take his first fight. The rookie may not have known going in whether or not he was ready but it didn’t matter.
“I’m one of those guys where if you dare me, I’ll do it. Somebody dared me. I did it. Bing bang boom, next fight, let’s go,” Davis, now 5-0, laughs.
Perhaps his ability to step in the ring without hesitation had to do with all of his amateur wrestling experience. Talk to many former high-level wrestlers like Randy Couture and they’ll tell you how after going through the pressure-cookers of big wrestling meets, nothing can rattle them.
“That is honestly true,” Davis says. “You know going in [to a fight] that bad things can happen. But when you understand that bad things are probably going to happen to them, it takes a lot more pressure off of you (laughs). Nerves are one of those things that the best guys are able to get rid of because they wear you down mentally. That’s when you lose.”
But Davis began to win and win often. His first four fights all came within two to three months of one another – the amount of time many top level professionals take for a single training camp.
There was a reason that Davis fought so often in the beginning; he needed experience, plain and simple. But, as there always seems to be for the cerebral light heavyweight, there was also a reason that he took six months between his fourth fight and his fifth.
“I told my manager that in college when guys are not ready for the line-up they redshirt them. In that redshirt year you basically practice with the team – all the guys who are starting, all the guys who are good. And that’s what I needed. I needed to train under somebody good for five to six months and then take my next fight. And then in that fight I want to look better,” Davis explains.
And he did, in a fight that just so happened to be his UFC debut. In February, Davis took on former WEC champion Brian Stann at UFC 109. Despite being much more inexperienced, Davis dominated Stann from bell to bell, controlling where the fight took place and constantly threatening with submissions.
Taking time between training camps just to work on technique is something that even most veterans never learn to do, but that champions like Georges St. Pierre make sure to adhere to religiously. Davis was smart enough to look at the right examples and approach the fight game wisely.
“It was a matter of my needing that time off not to get ready for a fight, but to just train everything and learn MMA as a sport, to get good at everything,” he says. “I approach everything analytically. I read somewhere that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something. I did the mental math – I train twice a day for two hours each, five days a week. Then for two hours on Saturday. There are fifty two weeks in a year. That means it will take me about eight years to really get good at MMA, until I can become like someone like Anderson Silva, a master. So I just have to put in the work and then hope that some of my natural ability will give me time and a half like a union worker (laughs).”
Judging by his varied attack against Stann, Davis is rapidly becoming a well-rounded fighter. To this day, most wrestler-turned-fighters will never try a submission attempt. They deem it too risky, and would rather live and die by their ability to get top position and simply avoid getting submitted while landing enough strikes to win.
But despite the fact that Davis will likely go a long time before he meets someone who can wrestle as well as he can inside the Octagon, he isn’t relying on what he knows. He is trying to make his weaknesses his strengths. And the fact that he went for so many submission attempts in his first bout in the UFC demonstrates that willingness to get out of his comfort zone.
“I have to throw it back to my coaches in high school and coaches in college who taught me that if you are looking for one thing, then you have a really good chance of winning. But when that stops working, in the middle of a fight, when somebody out-wrestles you, then, well, you’re in for a long night,” he says.
Looking towards his next fight, on April 10th against Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 112, this attitude would seem to continue to serve Davis well. The light heavyweight has the mentality of needing to constantly improve that will prepare him not just for his next opponent, but for anyone he will ever face.
“I’m not preparing for the guy who can’t stop my takedowns. I’m preparing for the guy who is going to let me take him down so that he can try to submit me. Or the guy who, like my upcoming fight, somebody who is probably going to try and throw hands, left and right, to try and keep me away from him. I need to train for these guys, not the guys who can’t stop my takedown and who I can impose my will on. No, it’s when everything goes wrong, what’s your number two move? What’s your number three move? You have to really study the game and get good at everything.”