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UFC 163 Factgrinder: The Wrestling of Phil Davis

Here, on the day of the UFC 163 light heavyweight clash between Phil Davis and Lyoto Machida, it is time to take a good hard look at the actual amateur wrestling accomplishments of UFC light heavyweight contender Phil Davis.


The Pennsylvania AAA high school state wrestling tournament is where nationally-ranked wrestlers go to lose. Most high school state tournaments are lucky to feature but a couple of nationally-ranked wrestlers. In tougher wrestling states, occasionally a weight class may see two national caliber kids meet in the finals after breezing through the rest of the field.

In Pennsylvania AAA, you will regularly see multiple athletes ranked in the nation's top 25 lose well before the finals. These wrestlers would easily claim state championships in 95% of state tournaments, but in the Keystone state, they will only be remembered as mere place winners.

In spite of this, Pennsylvania wrestlers often get the last laugh. While most high school wrestling state champions suffer low probabilities of collegiate success, any Pennsylvania wrestler who stands on the podium after his state tournament knows he can look forward to a decent chance at meaningful success on the NCAA Division I level.

With this in mind, we should not look back and experience shock that Phil Davis never placed higher than fourth at the Pennsylvania AAA tournament. In truth, guys from Pennsylvania win NCAA Division I wrestling championships fairly often after never winning their own high school state tournament. We also should not be surprised to learn that a few weeks after placing fifth in his final state tournament, Phil then placed fourth at the NHSCA Senior National Championships. Yes, he placed higher at a national tournament than in his state tournament, and no, you should not find this result too amazing. Pennsylvania is that good at wrestling- good beyond the point of arrogance.

When you add two Junior National runner-up finishes in Greco, and Junior National All American status in freestyle to Phil's high school resume, you get a very solid Division I-level prospect. Unsurprisingly, Penn State came calling and head coach Troy Sunderland brought him to Happy Valley. What should serve as something of a surprise is just how well Phil performed when he got there. I'm sure coaches expected Phil to be pretty decent, but they probably did not envision him becoming one of the best wrestlers in Penn State's storied history.

After a redshirt season as a freshman, Penn State's 2004-2005 projected starting lineup did not even include Phil; he only secured a permanent starting slot at 197 pounds after a teammate suffered a heartbreaking career-ending injury. Once Phil became the starter, he never looked back. As a redshirt freshman, an unseeded Davis surged to a surprising seventh place finish at the NCAA Division I tournament, earning All-American status for the first of four times.

The following year, Phil confirmed his status as one of the premier wrestlers in his weight class, reeling off a 26-4 record, winning a prestigious Big Ten tournament title, and making it all the way to the NCAA finals. In those finals he would face Jake Rosholt, who would beat him pretty soundly. Phil would also inexplicably wear his singlet backward, something of which I dearly wish I could find a picture.

Phil's 2006-2007 would fall short of his standards, he would earn a 28-5 record and "only" place fifth at the NCAA tournament, a result which represented a bit of a step back, but yet another All-American finish. Phil would then turn a major corner after in his final year, where he established himself as the dominant wrestler at his weight en route to an NCAA title (his lone loss that year came to a very good Mike Tamillow in a dual against Northwestern).

While in college, Phil also participated in a limited amount of freestyle events. In 2004 he finished as the runner up at the Junior World Team Trials, in 2007 he finished third at the University Freestyle national championships, and in 2006 he impressively placed fifth at Senior Freestyle Nationals.

Factgrinder Final Analysis:

Phil Davis has simply fantastic wrestling credentials. His NCAA Division I record speaks for itself, and I can safely speculate that he would have been a major force on the Senior freestyle circuit had he not pursued an MMA career. In fact, if Phil had committed to freestyle wrestling from 2008 to present, and given his age, rate of improvement, and size suitable for the 96kg weight class (scuttlebutt before his last year of college had Davis considering wrestling at heavyweight), I believe that he would be among the favorites to make the 2016 Olympic team. Not too bad for a guy who couldn't even win a high school state championship.

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