Accepting a fight with only five weeks to prepare for a top-10 opponent might seem risky, but the Ultimate Fighting Championship's Mr. Wonderful likes taking gambles.
"When you're afraid to take risks, you can't grow," says Phil "Mr. Wonderful" Davis. "Even if that comes in the middle of a fight, if I feel like, 'Hey, I've never done this move before, but at this particular moment, it feels like the right thing to do,' just go for it. You've got to take risks."
Davis will go for it March 26 in Seattle when he makes his debut in a UFC main event by facing Antonio Rogerio "Minotoro" Nogueira, No. 9 in the USA TODAY/SB Nation consensus rankings for light heavyweights. The crafty and highly experienced Nogueira represents a monumental step up in competition for the undefeated Davis, whose previous UFC foes were unranked when he fought them.
USA TODAY spoke to Davis this week about the upcoming bout. Excerpts from the conversation:
Q: Sports books list Lil Nog as the underdog. How do you like being the favorite?
Davis: I don't really get into who's the favorite, or who's plus and minus and all that stuff. At the end of the day, I'm the guy who has to get in there.
Don't tell him I'm the favorite or the sports book has me winning. It's not going to matter to him.
I don't know if that so much means that people think I'm the favorite. In my mind, I'm still the underdog. I'm still the young cat coming up against the experienced veteran and great fighter that Nogueira is.
Experience doesn't mean everything, is it? 'Shogun' has a lot more experience than Jon Jones, but Jones is listed as the favorite.
Experience is definitely not everything. I think I'm going to do great.
I don't think experience is everything, but I do think I'm still the underdog. This is just my ninth fight. He had nine fights before I was even thinking about fighting.
In his last two fights, Nogueira didn't look all that great against wrestlers Ryan Bader and Jason Brilz. Conventional wisdom might say you're an excellent wrestler. therefore you should do just as well or better than Bader and Brilz. I gather you don't necessarily agree with that line of thinking?
No, I don't. He's been around for so long because he's able to make adjustments. When he has a mistake, like a good fighter, he corrects them.
Obviously, I (might see) some places where I could make up some points and get myself ahead, but at the same time, you don't want to bank on that because he's a good fighter. If there was something that I saw in my own fighting that I'm doing wrong, I'm going back and fixing it immediately.
Talking about fixing things, where does your game need the most fixing?
Probably just in blending everything together really smoothly.
I know the way I should understand the sport because of wrestling. When I was wrestling, I knew how to take a guy from a seat to his back. I knew how to take him down the mat and then put him on his back. If I got thrown to my back, I knew how to switch around and put the other guy on his back.
I don't know all those entries and exits in MMA. When I finally do understand all those ins and outs of MMA, I'll be a very unstoppable person.
That's really what it is. It's understanding your body, the movements that are good for you -- your body type and your style -- and knowing how to make that work.
How far are you from reaching your potential in that area?
I have no idea. I have no idea.
Do your trainers ever give you any hints?
Definitely not. It's one of those things. If I went into the gym tonight and my coach says, "Whew, good news is, you're as good as you're going to get. Bad news is, you're as good as you're going to get," I'd probably quit. (laughs)
At this point in your career, in what area of MMA are you most comfortable?
I feel most comfortable after the fight's over (chuckles).
One of the things I worked on myself was not feeling uncomfortable anywhere. For me, if a guy is (for example) fighting off a takedown to death -- like someone's going to kill him if he gets to the ground -- that, to me, says he knows that if he goes to the ground, he is going to lose this fight; it's over. Even though that's good, now I have in my mind, once I get him to the ground, he's mentally broken.
I never want to be that way. I never want a guy to say, "Once I do this to Phil, it's over." No, you can take me down. I'm a wrestler. I'm fine. I'm good on the ground.
That's one of the things, I had to work on, for me, was making sure that I'm comfortable everywhere. If I'm standing, yeah, I'm comfortable here. Sure, you're better, but I'm comfortable here, I'm going to land some shots, and then I'm going to transition to whatever I want to do.
Speaking of standing, Lil Nog is known for his boxing skills. Do you think there are openings there for you to take advantage of him?
There's definitely opportunities for me to take advantage of his boxing.
He's tough. He's not going to be afraid to throw hard punches, that's for sure. He's not going to be afraid to throw hard shots.
I just need to be ready to move when they come my way. There's no reason to stand directly in front of a punch, if you can help it.
Which Nogueira fights are most helpful for scouting purposes?
It's funny, because I'm a fan of the sport and I'm also an athlete. I enjoyed watching his fight against Luiz Cane as a spectator; of course, as an athlete, I'm like, "Oh, I don't like that fight." But it was a good scrap.
I enjoyed his fight against Jason Brilz. That was also a really good scrap. That right there, he showed a lot of heart. Even when he was in a couple of positions where he might have been losing, he's cool. ... He just rolls over and keeps after it. You can't get him down. He gets right after you.
Do you think Lil Nog won that fight? There were a few folks who thought Brilz deserved the decision.
Brilz did some things and Nogueira did some things. Whatever the judges say, I just go with that because it's easier that way.
Eventually, I'm going to get a call, it's going to be crappy, but bad refereeing -- I'm sorry, not refereeing, but also refereeing -- bad judging is as much part of the sport as getting knocked out is.
You can train so hard, but if you fail to keep your hands up, you might get knocked out. And if you win a fight, as much and as convincing as it may be, if you leave that opportunity for it to go the other way, it very well might. That's as much part of the game as anything.
CAPTIONBy Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press
You were a 4-time All-American wrestler at Penn State before jumping into MMA. When you go back and talk to the Penn State wrestling team, do you sense that some of them are interested in trying MMA once they're done with college?
There's a couple of guys that are coming around that are just dynamite wrestlers.
I go ahead and want to make a seamless plug to my Nittany Lions. ... Next weekend they're going to win the national title, just like they won the Big 10 title last weekend.
Yeah, there are some savage wrestlers. We're keeping in touch because we're buddies. When the time's right, they'll come to me looking for a job and I'll have everything set up for them: a place to stay; a place to train; and the right people to know to get them right where they need to be, as far as fighting.
What sort of opponent did you have in mind for your next fight, before you got the call to replace Tito Ortiz against Lil Nog?
It doesn't matter who I think I'm going to fight, because even if I call that person out, I'm probably not going to fight that person.
Also, I just train every day and I hit mitts and hit the bag, and I don't put a face on that person. I don't say, "Oh, I want to fight this guy, I want to fight that guy." I'm training me. I'm training to get me better, not to beat that person.
Some fighters, including the guy you replaced, have a knack for making fights personal. Why don't you do that?
Nothing against anyone else or whatever tactics they use, but that's just me. I'm just fairly agreeable. I don't like to make a vendetta where there isn't one.
I know Nogueira. I've trained with him. Nice guy. We're going to fight, and then I'll see him around San Diego, I'm going to shake his hand and we'll hang out.
There's no need to make it more than what it is. We're doing business together. We're going to beat the crap out of each other and knock each others' screws loose, and hug after we're done and be real men and shake each others' hands, and that's it.
How would you describe that experience of rolling with Nogueira?
Typical Nogueira. (chuckles) Can't do much with him. Just scrambly as everything. Just solid all the way around.
Everybody you get the opportunity to train with, just train with them. So what if you have to fight them later? There's nothing about this fight, there's nothing malicious. I don't want to go out and rip his head off and hurt him or anything like that. No way. The Nogueira brothers are a class act.
We're both going to make some money, hopefully get that Fight of the Night, and that's about it.
You've become known for being creative with jiu-jitsu, especially since that hammerlock on Tim Boetsch. How much of that comes from a conscious effort to be artistic?
I don't try to do anything. That is, seriously, just the me coming out. I try to be regular -- and then me happens, and weird things happen and I end up in strange positions.
That's the way I wrestled. That's just the way I am. I would wrestle, and my coaches and my training partners would tell I do things that would never work for a regular human being. I guess they're right; I don't know. But for whatever reason, they worked consistently for me. Just because everyone else isn't doing it doesn't mean you shouldn't.
When we talked last year, you insisted that you're not a particularly gifted athlete. If that's the case, why are you able to do things that others aren't?
I have some flexibility and I'm just not afraid to try things. A lot of times, people are afraid to try things in practice because they don't want to lose position; everybody wants to win.
Believe me, I'm no different. I want to win all the time, in practice and in a fight. But when you're afraid to take risks, you can't grow. Even if that comes in the middle of a fight, if I feel like, "Hey, I've never done this move before, but at this particular moment, it feels like the right thing to do," just go for it. You've got to take those risks. Just go for it.
And you know what? The people that do it, you'll either end up making a mistake -- or you'll end up brilliant.