In every sport there’s a weeding out process. The NFL gets the cream of the crop from the NCAA, who in turn uses high school football, so by the end of the day everyone in an NFL uniform was most likely the best player on both their high school and college teams. Major League Baseball has a similar process, using their minor leagues to thin out the herd from merely being good at baseball to being one of the best in the world at it. To get to the top requires a lot of years to thin the herd of prospects down to those who can stay the best no matter what level of competition. The big money contracts, et. al, are given to those who usually show that they’re the best.
In the UFC, we’ve seen this happen as a handful of fighters have gone from prospect to contender, most recently Jon Jones. Eventually a fighter has to put up against the best, to see where they go from here. And that’s where Phil Davis currently is, that grey territory between contender and pretender. It’s why the UFC would throw him against a contender so quickly in his career and why it seems like the UFC is throwing one of their former champions a prospect to beat. It’s not that Rashad Evans is getting Davis for the “easy” victory. Davis is getting Evans because there’s only one way to find out if he can hang at that level. Every fringe contender who has become an elite fighter has done it and now it’s time for “Mr. Wonderful” to go through the time honored tradition.
In other words … if Davis was in the film “Zombieland,” Woody Harrelson would be telling him to “nut up or shut up.”
There comes a point with an MMA prospect that eventually they have to show where exactly they will end up in the food chain of fighting. Are they destined to be a champion, like Jones? Or is he potentially a high level gatekeeper, like Stephan Bonnar? Or are they just another talented fighter who could never become elite? Eventually every athlete in every sport goes through this process to see where on the athletic food chain they fall. Not everyone can be Peyton Manning but one can find a niche as a backup quarterback for some time and make a good living doing so. And this is what the UFC needs to find out about Phil Davis, which is why he’s facing Evans next.
Davis had steam-rolled through competition up until a close decision victory against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, a tough fighter with a legendary resume. “Lil Nog” represented a huge step up in competition for Davis and as such he can’t be pushed back to the undercard for fights with guys like Brandon Vera, et al. It was a test he marginally passed but he still passed it nonetheless. He showed a lot of good things in the fight, including the ability to adapt his takedown game, but it wasn’t the sort of one-sided pounding people expected out of him. It elevated his stock considerably, with some considering him a Top 10 fighter in the division because of it.
And that’s the thing; once you pass a test like defeating a fringe Top 10 fighter in your division you can’t go back.
It doesn’t make sense to put Davis against someone like Jason Brilz, or even Bonnar, because it would be a step backwards for him. The UFC has been tremendous in building up prospects until the time is right and Davis is no exception. To keep Davis fighting gatekeepers and fringe Top 25 fighters would be to stunt his growth as a fighter and falsely pad his record to appear greater than it is. Jones once said that the best way to become a legend is to beat one and it holds true for being a top level fighter: you have to beat them to join them. Considering he’s beaten the usual sorts of fighters to get to this point in his career, and defeated a fighter ranked in that rare air of elite fighters, there’s no other choice for the UFC and matchmaker Joe Silva. At this point the fight makes sense, only to see if Davis can hang with the best of the division. Evans certainly fits that bill.
Davis certainly has tremendous growth as a fighter ahead of him, due to his age, and he is yet to be a well-rounded fighter. But so far he’s beaten everyone in his path and has progressed to the point where the only question about him is whether or not he’s a top contender right now. He can’t move backward in competition nor can he stay at the same place. The only path for him is forward and that’s through a former light heavyweight champion.
Tags: jon jones, Mixed Martial Arts, Phil Davis, Rashad Evans, UFC 133, UFC Light Heavyweight division