This weekend, Phil Davis takes center stage in the biggest fight of his young career. The 9-0 fighter will meet Rashad Evans in the main event of UFC on Fox 2 Saturday night. It's a tough test for Davis, but one with the potential for huge reward, as a win here will earn him a spot at the elite level at Light Heavyweight.
For Davis, UFC and MMA success has been built almost entirely around a strong wrestling base. The Penn State All American has done a superb job adjusting his wrestling experience into an MMA setting, and has used his takedowns and ground control to roll through increasingly tough competition. But this is MMA, which means Davis needs more than just wrestling.
To get ready for Davis vs. Evans, let's take a close look at one of Mr. Wonderful's less examined areas - his stand-up. How well has this wrestler developed his striking game? And will he be able to strike with Rashad? Let's take a look in this striking analysis.
Davis does an excellent job playing to his natural strength - his reach. He has long limbs, and has built his striking arsenal around this length. In particular, Davis uses a lot of push kicks and kicks with the lead leg. On all his kicks, he really extends the leg fully, getting the most out of his length. With his hands, Davis also uses his reach well. His primary punches are straight shots - either a left jab or a straight right. Both punches come right down the middle, so use the full extension of Davis's arm. He adds to this extension well by stepping when when he punches, so that he can land shots from far outside.
His greatest asset in his striking is the way it sets up his primary game - the wrestling. Davis is very quick to change levels after throwing a punch, and will use his striking to get an opponent focused on the strikes, then quickly surprise him and secure the takedown.
It's a basic game, but it has its strengths. Davis uses his length to avoid a shoot out and allow him to fight the wrestling game he wants.
Weaknesses, gifs, and more in the full entry.
Here's a quick gif that really shows Davis's extension on his kicks:
To be blunt, Davis has some very serious gaps in his striking. The biggest is one that really concerns me - his reaction to getting hit. Nine fights into his pro career, Davis still responds very poorly when hit. He tends to flinch, cover, and escape somewhat haphazardly. It's not as bad as someone like Brock Lesnar, but it shows how uncomfortable he is with this aspect of the game. Land on Davis and, for a moment, his technique goes out the window and he seems to panic. He'll often follow this up with a quick shot for a takedown. That's a smart way to avoid taking future shots, but dangerous because it is predictable.
The other trouble is that it is entirely too easy to connect a shot on Davis. That is because his defense still needs work. Early in his career, he kept his hands extremely low, and would drop his right hand when throwing the left jab. He's tightened that up somewhat, but still has a tendency to both allow those hands to drift down away from his chin, and not keep the opposite hand tight when punching. Watch Davis's left hand in the gif on the left - it is constantly getting too low and away from his chin. Against Rogerio Nogueira, these holes led to Davis getting tagged in the first. Early on, Davis used a pawing jab on Nog, reaching his left out, but failing to bring it back home. Nog timed it, and caught Davis with a hard counter hook. These defensive holes are a big issue that must be fixed.
On the right is a gif that shows both the good and the bad with Davis. First, he lands a kick with nice extension. Then, he leaves the left hand out and gets caught by a Nogueira counter.
Three other quick technical flaws:
- He is very susceptible to feints, and can easily be thrown out of his rhythm with some well timed fakes.
- His strikes are often tentative, with less than his full force or effort thrown into many shots.
- On his kicks, he has a tendency to not fully rotate his hips, meaning he is not getting close to the full strength of the kick.
For a fighter with only 9 fights and 3 years of professional experience, Davis's striking is not so bad. The trouble is, it has not kept pace with his other skills. Davis came into MMA with a great wrestling background, and immediately had success adjusting his pure wrestling for MMA. He's also shown tremendous growth in his submission games, with two UFC wins coming via more high-end submissions. But his striking has not seen that same growth, and is lagging behind the rest of his game.
As I mentioned above, Davis has improved his defenses somewhat. He consistently tucks his chin now, keeps his hands higher, and doesn't drop his hands when throwing. But as the fight progresses, and as Davis gets hurt, these fundamentals with his hands slip away. The hands drift down, and the opposite hand leaves the head when punching. It's clear that this defense takes a lot of focus from Davis and does not come naturally - so when he is pushed, he can lose that focus and let that defense fall.
So far, he has overcome these striking shortcomings by using his strikes solely to set up the wrestling. But as he moves up the ranks of the talented Light Heavyweight division, his lack of development in this area will hurt him. Maybe starting on Saturday.
VS. RASHAD EVANS
The match-up with Rashad is an interesting one for Davis as Rashad provides a good model for Mr. Wonderful. Like Davis, Evans came into the UFC with a solid wrestling background and some holes in his stand-up game. But Rashad focused on improving those stand-up weaknesses and has developed into one of the very best at 205. I expect Evans will use his evolved striking against Davis here. A smart fighter, Rashad will likely find those holes in Davis's defense, using his speed and technique to get inside, land on Davis, and frustrate the young fighter. If Davis gets into a stand-up battle here, it won't go his way.
Overall, Phil Davis's stand-up remains a decided work in progress, but a work that is not progressing as fast as it should. I hope he can make the needed adjustments, as his very strong wrestling and submission skills make him a powerhouse at 205. But unless he has seriously focused on his striking in his 10 months off, he's going to find himself in over his head against the division's top names - starting with Rashad Evans.