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Wrestling breakdown: Four-time NCAA champion Joey Davis moves to 8-0 in MMA

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Perhaps the greatest Division 2 wrestler of all-time, Joey Davis is ready for a step up in competition after an 8-0 start in MMA.

NCAA Photos Archive

In NCAA Division 2 competition, only one wrestler has ever emerged with four titles and zero losses. Compton’s Joey Davis turned down offers to play Division 1 football to wrestle at the emerging Division 2 wrestling powerhouse Notre Dame College. Guided by his father, Davis prioritized his education, knowing that the smaller classrooms and quiet environment would allow him to succeed off the mat. The two-time California state champion was an immediate star, even taking out solid Division 1 opponents at open tournaments every season on his way to a perfect 133-0 record across four years.

The secret to Joey Davis’ success is his longtime coach, Antonio McKee. A friend of Joey Davis Sr, McKee took Davis under his wing at age 5 and began to prepare him for a life of professional athletics. 20 years later, Davis is still with McKee, and he’s built up to an undefeated 8-0 start in mixed martial arts.

Black Ice

In the wrestling world, Davis was known for his insanely explosive double leg. Not only could Davis cover ground and drive, he had the footwork to finish his shots even when the entry wasn’t perfect. Over time, Davis developed his level fake game and even built up offense from front headlock for when opponents refused to give him a window on their legs. That understanding of timing, posture and position manipulation, has translated beautifully to MMA.

When evaluating a wrestling prospect in MMA, you’re looking for some sort of connection between their striking tools and their wrestling attacks. Mechanics and smaller technical details can be cleaned up over time, but an early understanding of ideas is typically the best indicator of future success.

Take a look at his knockout win vs. Marcus Anthony.

Davis’ game is completely connected. His powerful outside kicking attack is designed to do damage, but also to scare his opponents into closing the gap and walk them into a reactive double.

On the lead with his hands, Davis jabs, feints level changes and continually shows Anthony his overhand right. He often dips in with his jab, incorporating level changes into his strikes. Over time, Davis is able to make the read that Anthony is keeping his guard high against all of these looks. Knowing this, he level changes again, sees that Anthony is still not biting on the feint, and blows him off his feet with a double leg.

After putting in work on the ground, Davis has convinced Anthony that he cannot afford to be taken down again. The fight has changed dramatically - when Davis level changes, Anthony has to decide whether to match his level and prioritize shot defense and leave himself exposed to strikes, or to stick to protecting his head and leave himself open for another takedown.

That’s how the fight ended. Davis walked in with a dipping jab and lowered his level, causing Anthony to loosen his guard in anticipation of a shot attempt. Instead, he ate a massive overhand and went limp.

Joey Davis knocks out Marcus Anthony

Marcus Anthony allowed Joey Davis to control the range and direction of the fight, he did not look to be enforcing any particular type of fight.

So what happens when an opponent attempts to pressure more intentionally? We found out when Davis fought Jeff Peterson. Peterson consistently looked to put Davis on the backfoot, and built level changes into most of his entries in an attempt to deal with the legendary double leg.

Within one minute, Davis had already come up with an answer to this approach. As Peterson pressured in, Davis changed levels in his stance, prompting Peterson to do the same. Peterson ducked in while moving forward and ate a sinister jumping knee to the chin.

It’s clear that Davis has a process on the feet, and specific looks that can lead to explosive, damaging attacks. The glue that holds this all together, of course, is his wrestling. If the thread of being taken down and controlled or damaged isn’t real, then there’s no reason for his opponents to acknowledge his feints.

Fortunately, Davis’ grappling is perhaps the most technically solid part of his game, outside of his wrestling on the feet. Davis wasn’t known for his mat wrestling in college, but only because his impressive rides and returns were overshadowed by his phenomenal skills from neutral. His understanding of wrist control and pressure has made him an impressive top position grappler for MMA.

We’ve seen Davis blast opponents from closed guard, the turtle position, and most impressively from the stacked position standing over his opponent. His long arms and understanding of weight transfer allows him to put unreal force into his ground and pound.

This was once again on display in his win vs. Bobby Lee on November 19th, 2020. A wrestler himself, Lee attempted to pressure and take initiative when it came to grappling situations, but Davis completely toyed with him on the feet.

We once again saw the “high-low” level change dynamics at work - this time on the cage. Davis was able to quickly transition from tall clinch control positions to deep level changes for double legs on the cage after faking the clinch break. When Lee attempted to close in himself, he was easily met with the reactive double of Davis.

Another new wrinkle in Davis’ neutral game was his use of high round kicks to stand up his opponent. Much like the once terrifying lightweight Ali Bagov, Davis attacked high to bring up the guard of Lee and straighten his posture. This brought Lee out of a solid defensive wrestling stance and opened up the double leg entry from space. In the future I would love to see Davis utilize the skip-up lead round kick so he could carry his momentum forward into the shot.

On the ground, Davis seems to be looking to adopt the cage riding system popularized by lightweight great Khabib Nurmagomedov. From every position his first priority was getting wrist control, stacking and passing the wrist to his other hand. When Lee’s back was to the mat Davis was able to bring Lee’s arm across his own back, when Lee was belly down Davis was able to pull the arm across and underneath Lee. The one other constant was that any time Davis had an arm free and space to move, he was throwing heat.

This approach more or less led to Davis putting Lee to sleep, momentarily. Even in positions where Davis didn’t have time to catch a wrist, his chest and hip pressure pinned Lee to the cage and left him open for big shots.

Bobby Lee appeared to be fighting just to survive - attempting to tie up Davis’ arms with kimura attempts and getting his back flat to the mat to avoid those dangerous positions, rather than fighting to stand back up.

Davis has never been one to take unnecessary risks or do much more than he needs to for a win, don’t expect him to go out of his way to make the fight more active. While Davis is certainly electric and entertaining in his style, his first priority is mitigating damage. He’s been on record many times that his goal is to be like Georges St-Pierre and control fights.

Even in collegiate wrestling, Davis sometimes kept matches closer than many predicted against outmatched opponents. He’s been calling for a step up in competition, and I believe the better his opponent, the more brilliance we’ll see from Joey Davis.