"Suga" Rashad Evans (16-1-1) is a former light-heavyweight champion who was dethroned at UFC 98 in 2009 by the great Lyoto Machida, who handed Evans the only official defeat of his career. The sole anomaly on Evan's record was a draw against Tito Ortiz at UFC 73 in which "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy" was shafted by a point deduction for grabbing the fence that was adjudicated much harsher than it has been historically (see Aldo vs. Mendes).
Evans won the second iteration of The Ultimate Fighter as a seriously under-sized heavyweight, relying on his superior agility and startling hand speed to unhinge his larger adversaries. He took the plunge to 205 immediately after winning the show and got off to a forgettable start with a split-decision victory over Sam Hoger and a unanimous vote against the crafty Stephan Bonnar. Evans, having set up shop at Greg Jackson's MMA, proceeded to experience an incremental but substantial evolution into a complete mixed martial artist.
Initially criticized for his inability to finish, Evans throttled Jason Lambert with a barrage of ground-and-pound from the mount and booted Sean Salmon's melon into the nosebleed section with a high kick to shatter that myth. After drawing with Ortiz, Evans made his title-run with a narrow split-decision over Michael Bisping before notching a gruesome and career-molding knockout of longstanding legend Chuck Liddell. Keeping his foot on the gas, Evans was elevated to the role of top contender and encountered newly minted champ Forrest Griffin, and smashed his way to a third round TKO to attain the strap. After Machida put him away with his straight left of doom, Rashad has streamed together three straight: Thiago Silva, Quinton Jackson (decisions) and Ortiz in the rematch by TKO.
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Phil "Mr. Wonderful" Davis (9-0) is an exciting new prospect with a flawless stint in pro MMA. He comes with the stellar accolades of not only being a four-time Division 1 All American, but a NCAA champion in 2008 at Penn State. Training at Alliance MMA under the great Lloyd Irvin bestowed Davis with a well rounded skill set that includes a functional kickboxing arsenal and the knack to snatch creative submissions, such as "The Wonder Bar" (my own phrase that I selfishly hoped would catch on), i.e. the nasty hammer-lock he wrenched on Tim Boetsch.
Since wrestling will undoubtedly be a pivotal aspect in this match up, here's wrestling aficionado Coach Mike contrasting the pair's collegiate credentials in detail:
In terms of pure wrestling pedigree, Phil Davis is in elite company in mixed martial arts. Had he pursued a career in freestyle on the world circuit he would have earned the honorific "world class" label almost immediately and would almost certainly have been a fixture near the top of our Olympic/World ladder at 211 pounds for years to come. This can be reasonably predicted by his folkstyle success on the NCAA division 1 level. As a mid-season insert into Penn State's lineup, a freshman Phil Davis achieved surprise All-American status and from there was a model for consistent improvement throughout his collegiate career, placing three more times, earning two NCAA finals appearances and winning a national championship as a senior. His final year as a collegian he was clearly the best wrestler at his weight and stood atop his competitors by a comfortable margin.
JUCO results don't give a reliable sense of wrestling ability in relation to the highest collegiate standard: NCAA division 1. For this reason Evans' performance at Michigan State is the only relevant indicator of wrestling pedigree. While Evans's collegiate D1 accomplishments pale in comparison to Davis', Evans ended his college career with the elite achievement of the NCAA round of 12, one match away from being an All-American. This is as high a wrestling achievement as other MMA notables Urijah Faber, Scott Jorgensen, and Charlie Brenneman. (Evans also handed future 3x NCAA champ Greg Jones his second loss of that NCAA tournament, and the final loss of his college career).
Putting things into perspective, Phil Davis's greatest wrestling achievement was a dominant and fairly predictable campaign to a NCAA D1 crown, while Evans' greatest achievement was a somewhat unexpected run to the NCAA round of 12, two weights below Davis. There is a sizable gulf in their ability as pure wrestlers, but to be fair to Rashad, Phil Davis is a better wrestler at his weight than all but a handful of people (2 to three dozen, tops) in the world.
Gifs and analysis in the full entry.
So as not to reinvent the wheel, I suggest reading up on two excellent Phil Davis Judo Chops: the crafty hammer-lock on Boetsch (right) and how he switched up his takedown methods at UFC Fight Night 24 against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.
The obvious path forward for Davis was building on his stellar wrestling foundation and putting the "mixed" in to his MMA game. Since wrestling pretty much takes care of the clinch and top-side grappling, the elements he pursued were submissions and striking. About a year into his fight career, Davis won the world no-gi championships in the blue belt division.
By my estimation, that achievement along with the "Wonder Bar" (such a nice ring to it) and his Anaconda choke of accelerating Swede Alexander Gustaffson exemplify the same freakish advancement in sub-grappling that Coach Mike highlighted with Davis' college wrestling stint.
A sensible conclusion is that, on paper, Davis will have a significant edge in wrestling and submission prowess over Evans, whose only legit catch is by unidentified means in his first professional foray. Of course, that doesn't always translate so simply, so let's review how Davis has imposed those strengths in the past.
Again sourcing the must-read analysis on Davis' takedown modification against Little Nog, the first round was a disappointing goose egg of five failed attempts on double-leg shots. There was also a rather noticeable air of timidity and hesitation from someone who is supposed to be an unparalleled juggernaut in grounding the fight.
The epiphany came when Davis started committing with confidence and switched to attacking with single legs. Like clockwork, Nogueira was less and less successful in slipping free and the last two frames resulted in a dramatic improvement by securing two of his three attempts.
To the left Davis lowers levels quickly and aggressively and topples Nogueira by manipulating the knee-area with a single leg, beautifully cutting a new angle and driving through once he secures the limb.
Another point of interest is how Davis often sets things up with a right kick to the mid-high range, which is fairly uncommon. It's another testament to his increased diversity, creativity and intelligence. Conversely, it's also worth mentioning how ugly some of his first round takedown attempts were, especially considering that Rashad will pose much more of a challenge with takedown defense than Nogueira.
This is an oldie but a goodie. There was no way anyone could doubt Rashad's potential or power after he became only the second fighter to snuff out Liddell with a single blow. This was his entrance into the annals of elite MMA light-heavyweights.
Not only does Evans' four-year jumpstart on Davis (2004 vs. 2008) give him a significant edge in experience, but Rashad has specifically excelled with his boxing whereas Davis has made smaller strides there and with submissions. I think the gap in skill on the feet will more than compensate for Davis' perceived wrestling advantage.
Because of opposing intricacies in footwork, wrestlers generally have the most trouble getting comfortable on the feet and transitioning back and forth between the two arts.
Rashad has been a salient exception. His natural propensity for striking mechanics is what propelled him to winning TUF and what has also vaulted him into the third slot of the world light-heavyweight rankings. He's developed a smooth composure in unfurling quick punches and measuring range without losing the strong semblance of balance that's dear to a wrestler.
By fusing this impervious stability with his lightning-fast punches, all the while maintaining his phenomenal agility and athleticism, Rashad is able to pressure his opponent with heat-seeking missiles without being susceptible to takedown attempts.
As we saw in both Ortiz fights, once Rashad got the confidence that he could stuff his shots he was able to unload the cannons, leaving Ortiz with extremely limited options with which to react. Like Davis, Ortiz's striking is ample enough to disguise his takedowns -- but when you remove the takedown factor, only mediocre striking remains.
I can't help but correlate that scenario in this match up. Given, Davis' wrestling and youthful exuberance is an apples and alligators comparison to Ortiz, but he's still not fully accustomed to integrating his shots seamlessly and hasn't encountered much elite opposition. Davis' monumental leap in rounding out his skills has been amazing, especially considering that he just broke the three-year mark in MMA, which is like running when most are still crawling.
Really, this entire analysis could have been streamlined with: "If Rashad can stop the takedown, he wins; otherwise Davis does." That pretty much rings true. Rashad will stay active and look to escape on his own rather than wait for the ref to bail him out if he is taken down, so one could conclude that Davis merely needs to avoid major damage and land just one per round to eke a 10-9. I feel Rashad's striking will be too fluid and venomous and his footwork will be key in thwarting Davis. Despite his apparent advantage in grappling, I don't think Davis can finish Rashad on the mat and dragging him down -- and keeping him there -- for all five rounds seems unlikely.
My Prediction: Rashad Evans by decision.
Davis vs. Nogueira gifs via BE reader Grappo
Rashad vs. Rampage gif via Urdirt.com
Rashad vs. Liddell gif via MMA-Core.com
All others via Zombie Prophet of IronForgesIron.com