Davis the forgotten man in UFC LHW division

Phil (Mr. Wonderful) Davis. AP

How come no one talks about Phil Davis as a contender in the light-heavyweight division anymore? Did I miss a memo or something?

In January 2012, Davis was an undefeated up-and-comer, discussed as one of the few fighters who could possibly be a future threat to light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones. A four-time All-American wrestler at Penn State, Davis won a National Championship in his final year as a Nittany Lion, and then rapidly climbed the ranks, making it to the UFC just 16 months into his career.

Over the next 13 months, “Mr. Wonderful” earned five wins, including submission victories over Alexander Gustafsson and Tim Boetsch, and a unanimous-decision win over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.

Three years and three months into his career as a professional mixed martial artist, Davis’ record stood at 9-0 as he prepared to enter the cage for the main event of the first complete UFC on FOX broadcast opposite former UFC light-heavyweight champion Rashad Evans. Though viewed as the underdog in the contest, which he would go on to lose by unanimous decision in a tepid 25 minute affair, most still viewed Davis as one of — if not, the — brightest prospects in the entire sport, and the top emerging talent in the 205-pound ranks.

What a difference 16 months makes.

Going into his UFC 159 fight this weekend against Vinny Magalhaes, the Harrisburg, Pa., native who fights out of Alliance MMA in San Diego has slipped out of the conversation in the light-heavyweight division.

He remains stationed at No. 8 in the Official UFC Rankings, but is looking up at two fighters he has previous defeated: his now teammate and training partner Gustafsson sits at No. 2, while Nogueira has moved up to No. 6. The buzz that surrounded Davis heading into his match-up with Evans last winter has disappeared, and I’m not sure why.

None of the standard arguments against his inclusion on the list of contenders holds any weight. He’s faced and beaten a pair of top-10 contenders, and his lone loss came against a former champion who then went on to fight for the light-heavyweight title again. Are we really at a point where losing to a former titleholder is grounds for exclusion?

I mean this is a guy who went from zero to main event in just under three-and-a-half years, beating a bunch of quality fighters along the way, and now he’s seemingly become an afterthought. What gives?

The UFC certainly hasn’t done Davis any favours in the booking department, that’s for sure.

After losing to Evans in the main event of UFC on FOX 2, Davis’ return engagement was originally scheduled to come on the preliminary portion of the UFC on FOX 4 event in August against Chad Griggs, he of the muttonchops and upset win over former professional wrestler Bobby Lashley. Griggs got hurt, and was replaced by Wagner Prado, an 8-0 promotional newcomer who had never competed outside of his native Brazil.

An accidental eye poke brought the bout to an end even before it could really get started, resulting a no-contest decision. Rather than take advantage of the opportunity to quickly transition Davis into a higher profile, more compelling match-up befitting a top-10 fighter, they rescheduled him with Prado, and this time, Davis submitted the Team Nogueira trainee.

Prado then lost his next fight to Ildemar Alcantara, who literally took the fight on 48-hours notice, and was released from the company.

This weekend, Davis is back on the main card (where he belongs), matched up with Magalhaes, a finalist on Season 8 of The Ultimate Fighter who has already washed out of the UFC once in his career. While the hyper-confident submission specialist went 7-1 in his time away from the Octagon, and returned to the organization with a submission win over Igor Pokrajac last September, the only reason this fight makes any kind of sense is that Magalhaes was lobbying for it hard on Twitter, and the UFC seems to have no idea where to go with Davis at this point.

But even with the completely unsexy bookings Davis has had in the last year, you would think his previous track record and established baseline of skills should be enough to keep him in the title conversation. As it turns out, you would be wrong.

While Gegard Mousasi arrived in the UFC as a freshly minted potential title threat despite having faced mediocre competition over the last three years — his best win is “MMA legend” Renato (Babalu) Sobral — Davis remains out of the conversation, even though he has a far superior record over the same time, and would be a nightmare match-up for the former Strikeforce champion.

The pedigree, skills, and upside that made Davis a rising star in the light-heavyweight division as recently as last January remain intact, and there is no reason to think that he hasn’t continued to sharpen those tools given another year of experience in the cage, and that much more time drilling technique and learning his craft.

Less than three years into his professional career, Davis found a way to grind out a win over an extremely experienced veteran like Nogueira, only to come out flat against a former champion in his next fight.

Personally, I put more weight on him being able to make adjustments in the cage and finding a way to defeat “Minotoro” than I do his loss to Evans. It was the 10th fight of his career. While a loss certainly has to bump him down the ladder a little, it’s like Davis got thrown off the ladder and into the abyss.

For whatever reason, people seemed give up on him as a top-tier talent after that defeat. They’ve moved on to the latest “buzz-worthy” addition to the roster, leaving “Mr. Wonderful” to fall out of the championship conversation, and slip under the radar heading into this weekend’s event.

It makes no sense to me. One loss doesn’t negate the potential he’s already shown in the Octagon or the dominant victories he’s already collected against highly regarded competition.

Davis should very much still be in the conversation at the top of the light-heavyweight division, and I have a feeling that come Sunday morning, there will be a lot more people who feel the same way.

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