CHULA VISTA, Calif. -- With time winding down before the Aug. 4 UFC on FOX 4 card, Phil Davis is plotting to show the fans something they've never seen from him.
The light heavyweight standout is one of three fighters at Chula Vista's Alliance MMA gym who will compete at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, along with heavyweight Phil DeFries and main eventer Brandon Vera.
All three want to go out and earn the UFC's evening bonus money, so with Davis fighting UFC newcomer Wagner Prado on the middle of the card, after DeFries but before Vera, he figures he'll have to use some strategy to earn some extra dough.
"I'm going out before Brandon, so its like I'm the pace car, you know?" Davis asks. "If I get a knockout, then he has to go out and do something crazy. But what if Phil does something big before me? Then I gotta go out there and do a spinning back kick like [Edson] Barboza."
Davis is only half-serious about throwing knockout-of-the-year spinning moves, of course. But his looseness is a sign he's put the first setback of his mixed martial arts career behind him and he's ready to resume his trajectory toward the top of the light heavyweight division.
Davis' fight with Prado will mark his Octagon return after his first MMA loss, which came in the highest-profile bout of his career: a unanimous-decision defeat against former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans in the main event of January's UFC on FOX 2.
"I still find that fight to be a little bit of a milestone," said Davis. "I haven't been in the sport for that long and I stayed with a guy whose been doing it two or three times longer than I have, so its just, you know, it is what it is. I don't feel like its necessary a fall off the horse type of situation."
Fighters aren't often given a chance to climb the ranks as fast as Davis, who signed with the UFC after just four pro fights, barely a year into his career, then won his first five bouts in the company.
Losing under such an intense spotlight has derailed many a young career, but Davis' head coach at Alliance, Eric Del Fierro, saw the Evans-Davis matchup as an opportunity for his fighter to learn and grow.
"Going against Rashad was a whole new level of competition," he said. "Just the understanding that, OK, this is what it's like at the top of the food chain, this is where the guys who Phil needs to fight in order to progress are. That's probably the biggest thing he walked away with."
Davis concurred with his coach's take.
"It's not something I'd say I could forget about, but I don't dwell on it either," Davis said. "My motivation for winning was never beating Rashad, it's to be a champion. That's the one constant throughout my career, and you know, nothing about my overall plan for success has changed. I still want to be the champion, I'm still 100 percent confident I'll be there, and just approach every day as such."
If it sounds like Davis is speaking from experience, he is. The Harrisburg, Penn. native was a four-time All-American wrestler at Penn State University in the 197-pound weight class. As a sophomore, he surprised observers by reaching the championship round of the NCAA tournament, where he lost to Jake Rosholt. Expectations for a national title were high in his junior year, but Davis was upset in the semifinals by Iowa State's Kirk Backes, then lost another upset in a consolation bracket before finally claiming fifth place.
No matter. Davis put the losses behind him and cruised through his senior year, going 26-1 and claiming the 2008 national title with a 7-2 win over Central Michigan's Wynn Michalak.
"It doesn't even have to be wrestling," Davis said of his ability to respond to adversity. "Anyone who's been through any type of rigorous experience, whether its school or wrestling, or MMA or, you know, tournament-style badminton or something, it doesn't matter. You have to train and achieve and work your way through adversity, and you continue on. That's really all it is."
With the fight against Evans behind him, Davis returns to the Octagon to meet unheralded Prado, a Team Nogueira product out of Sao Paulo, Brazil, who will be making his UFC debut. While it would be easy to view Prado as a step down after fighting someone of Evans' stature, Davis knows that Prado is unbeaten and has seven KOs and TKOs among his eight wins, and he's not about to take the newcomer lightly.
Two weeks before the fight, Davis already looked in fighting trim during a morning workout, sparring three rounds in headgear and boxing gloves with three different opponents at the gym in this town located between San Diego and the Mexican border. If his experience in the NCAA tourney taught him anything, it's that he has to take everyone seriously, whether its a former UFC champion or someone making his debut.
"I've got a job to do. Its the same thing, you know, whether its Rashad or whether its Prado, it's the same job, I'll be in the same Octagon. Doesn't matter whether anyone knows his name. I don't go out there and worry about my opponent. I just go out and try to make myself the best fighter in the world, and the best fighter in the world will beat anybody in the cage. It's a simple plan and it doesn't change."
His teammate, Vera, says he uses Davis as a gym inspiration as he prepares for his own bout, the main event against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua.
"He just keeps going and going, man," said Vera. "He's all business. Whenever I have one of those moments where I want to stop, I see him working and I know I've got to step on the gas pedal some more."
And who knows, maybe both will earn a little bonus money come August 4.
"Now we're all ‘well, you try to get a knockout, but I'll try to get a submission,' or ‘you'll get fight of the night,'" said Davis. "I don't know if its good or bad that you have to compete with your own boys for money that we all want, but, you know what? Its super cool with all of us, ‘cause you want to fight on the same card and it almost never happens."