The deeper you look, you realize the gifts are more than simply what's at surface level. He is bright, well-spoken, and a realist. He seeks out the best training in all the various parts of MMA, is willing to work his way up from the bottom and puts in his time at the gym. The former NCAA wrestling champion has long been on the radar of MMA insiders, but three fights into his UFC career, fans have been slow to warm to Davis, likely because none of his previous fights has been on a main card.
That changes at UFC 123, when Davis makes his main card debut in a bout with Tim Boetsch. With a win, the Phil Davis hype train may well begin to fuel up and fill up.
Davis has heard the talk about his potential loud and clear; he simply refuses to buy into the buzz, instead choosing to pave his own destiny.
"It's kind of like, you can't allow anyone to tell you your worth," he said. "It's positive and negative. If someone tells you you're the worst in the world, you can't believe that. If they tell you you're the best in the world, you can't believe that either. You've got to be who you are in your own self."
In person, Davis comes off as humble yet confident, like he's aware of both the potential he possesses and how far he needs to go to fully untap it.
It is an attitude forged in the wrestling room, where Davis was a four-time collegiate All-American at Penn State, a career he capped off with a 2008 national championship.
He immediately transitioned to MMA. Within seven months of capturing that national title, he was making his professional fighting debut. Davis steamrolled through his first four pro opponents, quickly earning a UFC deal. And though he's looked impressive in his first three forays into the octagon, he understands he's still just scratching the surface of his talents.
"I know I get beat up in the gym every day, so it's no mystery to me that I'm not ready for a title shot," he said. "So that being said, when I'm sharp and still training with the best guys and I'm in there four or five rounds straight, and they're switching out on me five fresh guys, then it's time and maybe I should put the word out. But until then, I'll just take the next guy."
For now, the "next guy" is Boetsch, a rugged opponent who is no walk-through (Davis calls him a "205-pound version of the Korean Zombie"), though most expect him to keep his undefeated record intact.
He's certainly made sure to surround himself with quality training partners and trainers, having worked extensively with American Kickboxing Academy, home of UFC heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez.
It's no accident that Davis ended up in a gym that took wrestlers like Velasquez, Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck, and made them threats on their feet. And Davis says the group has been happy to share their knowledge with a budding star.
"Cain? Most of his tips hurt," Davis said with a smile. "But I'm always asking for help, and they're more than willing to give it to me."
Davis' actual home though, is at San Diego's Alliance Training Center, where he trains with fighters like WEC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz and UFC veteran Brandon Vera. He noted that every time he's gotten comfortable in his training and hit a plateau, he's moved to work with a better caliber of fighters.
While he seems to have surrounded himself with guys who favor striking, Davis said he's always going to fall back on the wrestling base that made him a phenom.
"Everything with me somehow kind of works its way back to wrestling," he said. "To me, MMA is like wrestling. I don't know why I've been wrestling so long and not been punching. Wrestling's so much fun when you can punch people. I don't know why I haven't been doing this. It doesn't make sense to me."
Davis says this, like many things, with a smile. It's still early in his career, and he's still having fun. But as expectations rise and the opponents get progressively better, the challenge and the pressure can steal some of the joy from even the most optimistic of souls. There is criticism, after all, for even the champions of the sport who don't fight in a fashion that is considered exciting enough. It is a trap that Davis plans to avoid.
"You can go for a spinning backfist and miss it, or you can land a straight right. I think people remember the spinning backfist, but if you get knocked out, no one's going to thank you for going for it," he said. "If you do something flashy and you land it, that's cool to me. I applaud that, but there's no points for trying. There's no style points in MMA. I stick to what I'm good at and I stick to my game. I don't break off from the game plan."
Davis has the physical and mental tools to become a superstar, and beginning on Saturday, he has the opportunity. Now comes the hardest part: actually making it happen.
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