There are two ways to get attention: scream and yell for it, or earn it by being exceptional. Given her choice, Alexis Davis will always opt for the latter. That's just part of who she is. Small-town living will do that to you.
Davis grew up in Port Colborne, Ontario, population 18,000 and change. That's not too far off of the number of people that will fill up Winnipeg's MTS Centre on Saturday to watch Davis compete against Rosi Sexton on the main card of UFC 161. It's a day she couldn't envision growing up, when sports was nearly a nonexistent part of her life. Aside from dabbling in soccer, there wasn't much in the way of athletics. She was an outdoors girl, hiking and rollerblading with friends as a means of social interaction, but that was about it. Life as a professional athlete? Not even a thought in her mind.
Then again, early on, Davis was never quite sure what she was going to do, or who she wanted to be.
"I was kind of aimless," the 28-year-old told MMA Fighting recently. "I never really had an interest. When I was really young, I loved art. I loved to draw and paint. But as I got older, it was like, 'Where am I going to go from here?'"
In some ways, she is kind of the anti-Ronda Rousey.
Rousey is loud and bred to be a champion; Davis is quiet and had little interest in sports as a child. When Rousey was 17 she was competing in the Olympics; when Davis was 17 and graduating high school, she was mostly directionless. Mostly. Things changed for her as her school days ended, when she wandered upon something that sparked her interest, walking by a local martial arts academy, Dayboll Jiu-Jitsu. The possibility of trying it intrigued her, but it took her two more years before she worked up the courage to try a class with a friend.
Almost immediately, Davis fell in love. At the time, she was working with her mother as a book wholesaler, but quickly, the martial arts became her passion and her purpose. Before long, she was spending more and more time at the gym. Enough that they couldn't kick her out, so they eventually hired her.
When she was 21 years old, after about two years of training, and success in various jiu-jitsu tournaments, Davis was in the gym watching a friend train for an MMA fight, and wondered why she couldn't do the same thing. After several starts and stops with opponents who backed out of fights, she made her pro debut against future Strikeforce bantamweight champ Sarah Kaufman, who at the time was only in her fourth pro bout. In the fight, which ironically took place in Winnipeg, less than a half-mile from the site of her Saturday UFC debut, Davis lost via third-round TKO.
The result hardly dampened her enthusiasm.
"I think being a pro fighter became my focus after my first fight," she said. "Even coming off a loss, I wanted to continue. I realized, 'I love doing this.'"
After reeling off a six-fight win streak, Davis found herself linked with some of the sport's bigger names. Tara LaRosa, Shayna Baszler and Tonya Evinger all showed up on her resume before Strikeforce came calling in 2011.
Davis, now a jiu-jitsu black belt, will step into the octagon having won five of her last six, with four stoppage victories. In Sexton (13-2), she'll be facing an opponent who has spent the majority of her career as a 125-pounder. In addition, Sexton hasn't fought for over a year, with her last bout coming in June 2012.
"Is that an advantage? It depends how much she's done in training since her last fight," she said. "I know she has a demanding job in the medical field so it could be an advantage for me but she’s also a veteran of the sport. I know she fought Gina Carano at 135, but it doesn't happen too often for myself where I have a height and reach advantage. I'm usually one of the shorter fighters. That's definitely a bonus for me."
The women's title path has its course charted. Champion Rousey will face Miesha Tate after the airing of The Ultimate Fighter, and after that, the winner will face Cat Zingano, who is currently recovering from knee surgery. Davis says the possibility of a long wait to fight for the belt is "a little bit discouraging," but that it will also allow her time to make some changes and adjustments for competing with the division's elite.
And make no mistake, that's exactly her plan. In fact, she once implied a criticism of Rousey by noting that she herself had "more than one submission." But she said now that Rousey has started to win her over.
"What does matter is that you keep the belt," she said. "I actually have more respect for Ronda than when she first came around. I think she might have been too vocal with her opinions at first, and the way she said things. But now she seems to have calmed it down. And even watching the [Liz] Carmouche and Rousey fight, we got to see some of the things she's gone through, and her training camp. I respect any fighter who trains their ass off. If you put the time in, then you have my respect. Not fighters that think if I can put on a little mini skirt and a sports bra, then I should get a title fight. But if you're going to put the time in, then I have more respect for you."
She is still gunning for her though. Asked how long she thinks Rousey will hold on to the belt, she predicts that Rousey will beat Tate in the rematch, but could run into some trouble with Zingano. If she survives that, Davis will be waiting for her.
Maybe it's the small-town girl in her, but even then, she stays away from headline-generating predictions. She doesn't guarantee she'll beat Rousey, or predict a method. She just says that maybe Rousey will hold on to the belt "until she faces me."
That belt remains her goal, and the sooner, the better.
"If I were offered the fight right after I finished talking to you, I would take it," she said.
But that is about as far as she will go with bold declarations. She'd rather take the high road and do things the right way. She'd rather help elevate the game. When it comes down to it, Davis is not the trash-talking type anyway. Even if she has a statement to make, she'll do it on her own terms.
"I go out and fight," she said. "I come off with a great win and make fans notice. That's it."