It’s just before fight time and Phil Davis is trying to relieve any pressure by being in a joking mood.
He's about to go into the MMA Lion’s Den, an American fighting Brazil’s former light heavyweight champion, Lyoto Machida, at the HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday night. Davis, with little change in emotion, went back-and-forth from serious to comedy.
For example, when asked about light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, he spoke about their big similarity being they both like to collect shoes. Of course, he had just gotten off a 13-hour flight to Rio.
"It’s long enough to go crazy," said Davis, the light heavyweight contender, who will move several steps up against perennial top contender Machida. "It was all South. Going East or West will kill you. I went to Abu Dhabi. That had a 12-hour time difference. But it was cool, you just get up when the sun comes up and go to sleep when the sun goes down."
Davis (11-1, 1 no contest) is a 4-to-1 underdog, largely based on his opponent’s success fighting wrestlers, and the feeling Machida is a superior stand-up fighter.
Machida has a huge experience edge, and has proven to be difficult to take down. Standing, he’s MMA’s Rubik’s Cube. His darting in-and-out style is incredibly frustrating to go against, and sometimes frustrating to watch as well.
In Machida’s last fight, on Feb. 23 in Anaheim, he won a decision over two-time Olympic wrestler Dan Henderson. Henderson between rounds was saying how Machida was, well, a word you’d use in a schoolyard verbal battle for a guy who was backing down from a fight. But the end result was the style negated all of Henderson’s offense. This added Henderson’s name to Machida’s list of wins over wrestlers that also includes Ryan Bader, Randy Couture, Rashad Evans and Tito Ortiz.
"He has had good success against wrestlers, but he hasn’t had any success against a national champion wrestler," said Davis, the 2008 NCAA champion in the 197-pound weight class while wrestling at Penn State. "Even high level wrestlers like Dan Henderson and Randy Couture, they’re Greco guys. We have a different skill set than they have. If you say wrestling to the average person, it’s a very broad umbrella. But there are a lot of different kinds of wrestling that people who know wrestling will understand."
While Davis has been building up the fight saying he was going to submit Machida (19-3) on the ground, something nobody has ever done before (Jones submitting him standing with a guillotine), he concedes it’s not how he wins, but simply finding a way to win that is foremost on his mind.
"The goal is always mainly to get my hand raised," he said. "Something like that is just icing on the cake."
A lot of people hate when the phone call comes from UFC and they say the opponent is Machida. For one, the likelihood of a performance bonus diminishes since he’s hard to finish, and even harder to have a great fight with. He has style difficult to train for because nobody is like him, and he takes people out of their game.
Davis said he was fine with it, saying long-term, it was a fight that had to happen.
"When they first said that name, I thought, 'This is going to be fun,’" which is hardly the consensus of light heavyweights when asked about fighting the elusive karate stylist with balance coming from years of sumo. "He’ll be a handful. He’s the no. 1 contender. The no. 1 contender should be hard to beat, hard to figure out. It’ll be that much more sweet after I do figure him out."
"A lot of guys have different plans for their careers," he said. "I know that if you want to get to the top, you have to fight a guy like Machida. If you want to get to where I want to go, you have to fight top guys like him."
He also said, with a straight face, that Saturday’s fight is no different than his past few fights, two against Brazilian Wagner Prado and another with Vinny Magalhaes.
"I look at this fight exactly the same as the last three fights," he said, once again, without a hint he’s going off on another comedy tangent. "The only thing that’s really changed is the date, the place, the opponent, the Octagon, the people in the stands, the poster, the pay-per-view numbers. But the gloves are the same."
When Davis first started having success in UFC, at the same time Jones was coming up, it appeared the two would be on a collision course. Their backgrounds growing up in the wrestling community were similar. Jones never wrestled Division I, not that he couldn’t have, but dropped out of school after he had won the junior college nationals to support his family. Both have unique physical gifts. Jones has the giant wing span. When you look at Davis, the first thing you see is this ridiculously set of wide shoulders and big back on a tiny waist, to where he looks almost like a human cartoon character.
But that talk of a big Jones vs. Davis showdown stopped when Rashad Evans out wrestled him on Jan. 28, 2012, on FOX, in winning a five-round decision. Evans then went on to lose every round to Jones. Davis has picked up a couple of wins since, but has yet to beat someone that would put him back into the forefront of contenders, which a win on Saturday would do.
He blames his lone career loss on inexperience. He had barely three years in the sport at the time of the fight.
"Rashad Evans is a good fighter, a former champion, and he knew all the tricks of the trade," he said. "He started in UFC in 2005. I was just moving into my dorm room at Penn State in 2005. He’s been at this for a long time. He’s seasoned. I graduated college in 2008. Since then I’ve been training to be on the same stage. Fighting Rashad after a few short years was an absolute honor, even having lost.
"What I took away from it was that the No. 1 contender for the title beat me. It upsets me, but I still reached that point in my career where I could fight him very early on. I just hadn’t had enough time at that point. I’ve perfected more skills since then. I have skills that are entirely mine. I have things I do that nobody else does. It’s hard learning an entirely new sport. I was all part of the learning curve. I’ve been there before. Losing to good guys was part of the game.
But if he beats Machida, as he plans, he doesn’t necessarily see Jones as his opponent if he earns himself a title shot. Part of that is team loyalty, as he’s been training daily, at his home at the Alliance Gym in San Diego, with Alexander Gustafsson, who faces Jones for the title on Sept. 21 in Toronto.
"I train with Alexander Gustafsson, so naturally, I think he’s going to win," said Davis. "He’s my boy. He’s prepared to win right now. He’s ready. They could fight this weekend."
But unlike other training partners at the top level who say they won’t fight, Davis said that if the situation arises, there is no problem.
"No, I’d fight him," he said. "We’re in this to be the best. If one of us has the belt and the other one wants it, it’s up for grabs."
Being across enemy lines doesn’t concern him, nor does he see it as uncharted waters, saying he’s experienced the exact same thing. He fought Prado in the same HSBC Center on Oct. 13, and even though the entire crowd was against him that night, he said he’s been through worse.
"I’ve competed at Carver Hall (the home of Iowa State wrestling), an arena that’s actually more hostile than Rio de Janeiro," he said. "Here, the people speak Portuguese. I’m sure they’re going to be yelling mean things at me, but I won’t know what it is. I do understand Midwest-accent English. I understood those people quite well. That’s a very unpleasant experience, especially if you’re a Big-10 opponent. I’ve done that time and time again. I’ve had plenty of experience in these types of situations."
While saying it deadpanned, even though probably not all that serious, Davis says he’s found the secret to Machida.
"I was watching tape of him for three or four hours straight," he said, in a delivery not at all laced with comedy. "He blinks his left eye twice, and then he comes at you with fury. I went back and watched over-and-over. I have a really nice TV. I zoomed in on it. Yes, he does it, he blinks his left eye twice, and pow. So I’ll be watching his eye all night. The real danger for him is he’s not going to be the first person to look into my eyes and get mesmerized. "