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Now with Bellator, Phil Davis may have finally realized his potential

Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t entirely surprising that Phil Davis signed with Bellator on Wednesday. It was only surprising how quietly he entered the world of free agency, and how casually people who realized this said, "Oh yeah? Is that right? You going to eat that pickle?"

Davis has always been very "sort of."

Every now and then it seemed like "Mr. Wonderful" was being primed for a title shot with Jon Jones. That clash was forever down the road for the broad-shouldered former Penn State wrestler who wore the pink shorts. It felt somewhat inevitable, especially considering the dearth of contenders at 205 pounds. But it never materialized. Davis ended up in a "top five-ish" purgatory in the UFC, locked in the land of never-fully-realized potential.

What happened? Something like general dissatisfaction.

Davis won some, he lost some, he compelled people to check their e-mail during his fights. That last thing is a sin. He spit an awkward game, that fell between trash talk and cruise ship comedian. He became a little paradoxical, too…as in, the fights he won might have been more damaging than the ones he lost. He’d knock off contenders and nod off spectators. Whenever he got too big for his britches he got humbled. Anthony Johnson’s handling of Davis at UFC 172 was a course in existentialism. Davis looked right past him and…well, he shouldn’t have looked right past him.

Somewhere along the way, Davis just stopped moving the needle. If there was a word that could be cast over his fights, the one that comes to mind is "frustrating." That’s not the kind of light you want to give off. 

But still, he had moments in the UFC -- particularly early on -- and that’s where everything gets conflicted. He did invent the "Philmura" against Tim Boetsch, which sent the "Barbarian" into a fit of introspection (and ultimately down to middleweight). He did defeat Alexander Gustafsson in Abu Dhabi before they went on to become training partners. Later, against Glover Teixeira -- in perhaps his finest showing -- it felt like he might be finally rounding a corner.

Then he gambled. He opted not to re-up on his UFC contract, and then unceremoniously lost against Ryan Bader in Sweden. Again, just like so much in his UFC career, things ended in a state of dissatisfaction. Just kind of "huh."

Perhaps it was the premature encounter with Rashad Evans back in early 2012 that ended up unmooring him. UFC matchmaking, on that rare occasion, blindfolded a future contender, turned him around 50 times, and handed him a stick on national television. Remember that? It wasn’t that he lost his first pro fight that night; it was that he looked so bad doing so. Evans outwrestled him. Worse, Evans showed that Davis was still just a block of clay, still a long way from resembling anything. Especially a contender.

From that point on Davis’ hype never fully recovered. He went 4-3-(1). The Lyoto Machida victory will forever wear "quotes," and the Vinny Magalhaes victory will forever beg "why?" It’s best to let the Wagner Prado series just slip into the past without thinking too much about it.

So the move to Bellator can’t help but be…if not a good thing, then definitely a "right-feeling" thing. Davis can compete with elite fighters, but he hasn’t shown that he’ll ever transcend them. In the land of Liam McGeary’s and Emanuel Newton’s and (gulp) Tito Ortiz’s, well, he doesn’t particularly need to. He just needs to be Phil Davis.

And who knows. At 30 years old, he is (probably) coming up on his prime. He may still round the bend yet. From the promotional perspective, Davis is an established name who has some very good UFC scalps in his collection, to go along with the best trapezius muscles this side of Dwight Howard. In Bellator, he may finally get that elusive title shot. He may become the champion. He may stay that way for a long time. All of this is possible.

Phil Davis as something more than Phil Davis is possible. Phil Davis as Phil Davis is probable.

Because even if we didn’t see things playing out quite like this as he began his career 9-0, you can’t help but think that this move might actually be Phil Davis living up to his true potential.

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