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Why Phil Davis isn't a more effective MMA wrestler

Coach Mike Riordan takes a look back at Phil Davis' college wrestling career to explain why the UFC light heavyweight's excellent mat pedigree doesn't always translate to the cage.

Davis surrounded by Olympic gold medalists Cael Sanderson and Jake Varner
Davis surrounded by Olympic gold medalists Cael Sanderson and Jake Varner
Patrick Smith

After tepid performances against Rashad Evans and Anthony Johnson, fight fans have openly wondered why a four-time NCAA Division I wrestling All American and champion doesn't make better use of his wrestling against opponents with less heralded wrestling backgrounds.

The truth of the matter is that  Davis was, and is, a fantastic wrestler, every bit as skilled as his resume would suggest. On the mats he showed poise, intelligence, endurance and fortitude- everything you would look for in a champion wrestler. In four years of competition for Penn State, Davis wrestled in one of the most talent-rich weights in the country, and never finished outside of the top 8 at nationals, and during his senior year, Davis was simply stellar on his way to a national championship.

In college, Davis was often dominant, but not all dominant college wrestlers evolve into dominant MMA wrestlers. Three factors in Davis' wrestling which explain why the former Penn State stand out's superior wrestling pedigree hasn't led to more effective wrestling output in a couple of his more high-profile fights.

1. He is not a clean finisher

In previous posts, I have identified timing-based set ups and clean, authoritative finishes on takedowns as the attributes most useful in predicting the effectiveness of a wrestler's offensive wrestling in MMA.

For example, fighters like Josh Koscheck and Ryan Bader were extremely authoritative finishers, and this often manifests itself in their fights. In their college days, both could enter into and convert a takedown in the blink of an eye. Davis, on the other hand, never blew through opponents and had to finish his takedowns a bit more ponderously. Simply put, he just wasn't terribly explosive. Two bits of footage below show how this lack of explosion showed up in Davis' wrestling offense.

Against this overmatched young man from Lock Haven (above), you can see Davis get in on a nice shot, but he secures the leg on his outside hip, and has to improvise his way to a somewhat awkward finish. This was typical of Davis, who was not a quick scorer, and this often showed up when he was facing tougher competition.

Here is Davis wrestling Cornell's Jerry Rinaldi in the quarter finals of the 2007 NCAA Tournament. At the beginning of this roughly minute-long sequence, Davis gets in on a high crotch to Rinaldi's right leg; Davis does not finish quickly and cleanly, and then must wrestle through his opponent's counter. Davis penetrates then pauses, and Rinaldi slips the shoulder, sits to a crotch-lift position and attempts to slime around for a takedown of his own. A long scramble ensues, and Davis, on the strength of a nice Iranian lift, ends up with the points.

Davis, as a wrestler, was not a clinical finisher of takedowns, but he overcame this with his outstanding ability to convert points from awkward positions. Unfortunately for him, these awkward positions are very uncommon in mixed martial arts.

2. Much of his success came in wrestling-specific situations

Davis the wrestler was at his best when he wrestled patiently and let the match come to him. He was a clever defensive wrestler, and opponents usually had a maddeningly difficult time finishing single legs on him.

Above, Davis executes a slime-around counter to Mike Tamillow's high crotch, similar to the counter used by Rinaldi earlier. Davis excelled from this position. Unfortunately, this is a situation common to wrestling, but it never pops up in a cage fight.

In this sequence from Davis' 2008 NCAA finals victory, he defends a kick-back whizzer throw from Central Michigan's Wynn Michalak. Over a minute of methodical wrestling, Davis very smartly turns the tables on his opponent and converts the throw attempt into a single leg takedown of his own.

These sort of extended wrestling sequences were where Davis found a great deal of his success, but they are something almost never seen in MMA.

3. He was an absolute demon of a mat wrestler, but that doesn't matter much in MMA

Davis was a nifty and nasty dude as a mat wrestler, particularly in top position, and much of his wrestling success was rooted in his mat skills.

Here we revisit his match against the Lock Haven wrestler, where Davis finishes the evening with a high leg turk converted into a very unpleasant bent-leg turk, also known as a bow and arrow.

Davis' bread and butter, however, was his cradle series, which he used to great success even against very high-level competition. Above, he uses a power half on the far side to set up a near side cradle.

As a mat wrestler, Davis had incredible skill, but the vast majority of that skill simply goes unutilized in prize fights.

Let's not get carried away about the ineffectiveness of his wrestling

Phil Davis the fighter may not always dazzle spectators with his wrestling, despite his impressive pedigree. The reason for this rests in the fact that Davis the wrestler's particular skill set is not optimally suited for use in MMA.

Despite this, Davis is one of the top light heavyweight mixed martial artists in the world, and he has achieved this status not through slick kickboxing or clever guard play, but on the strength of his wrestling background. Based on this background alone, Davis should still outwrestle almost any opponent he faces in the light heavyweight division.