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One year on in Bellator, Phil Davis glad to speak for 'someone who doesn't have a voice'

Esther Lin photo

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- Phil Davis knew the reaction was going to be mixed when he signed with Bellator last April.

Just a year ago, after all, the idea of a fighter in his prime, with career upside, willingly walking away from the UFC was considered a little crazy. Bellator was thought of as the place where stars who had retired came back for one last crack at glory, not for someone top 10 in the world in their division.

"There were definitely guys who reached out to me, who congratulated me," Davis told MMAFighting. "There were other guys who were like, ‘dumb idea.' But, you know, it's different for each guy. "

But as Davis heads into year two of his Bellator contract, he turned out to be, if not exactly the leader of a movement, than at least a bellwether of change. His April 15, 2015 signing with the Viacom-backed promotion was the first of several high-profile acquisitions by the sport's No. 2 promotion, a list which has gone on to include former UFC and WEC lightweight champ Ben Henderson, former Strikeforce lightweight champ Josh Thomson, and heavyweight contender Matt Mitrione.

For his part, Davis, the Alliance MMA fighter and former NCAA wrestling champion, doesn't see himself as an active leader of a free agency movement. But he does believe that, as the first to make the jump, he had an opportunity to speak up and say what so many fighters had on their mind.

"Honestly, I don't feel like I'm a trendsetter," said Davis, who meets "King Mo" Lawal on May 14 in San Jose. "I'm just one of those guys that, I just stick up for what I believe in and sometimes that happens to be this particular situation where i changed employers and maybe that's playing out for someone who doesn't have a voice."

While Davis might not have set out to set trends, Mitrione, who has been vocal about issues such as the sponsorship money fighters lost when the UFC signed an exclusive apparel deal with Reebok, paid particular attention to the fact it was Davis who took the free-agency plunge first.

"Phil and I are friends, and he's very intelligent," Mitrione said. "He's off-the-cuff and he's very witty. But he's very calculating. So I know if he did something, he did it for a reason. So my first thing, same thing with a smart guy like Benson, was to call them up and say, ‘hey, what's going on? why did you do it?' I understand what is going on in this industry. The writing is pretty clearly on the wall, and it's easy to read. That's what it was."

At the end of the day, though, while Davis can appreciate the respect he's gotten from other fighters for being bold enough to make a big move back when free agency was rarely discussed, all that's really changed for him is the name of his employer.

"Yeah man, it's the same job for me," Davis said. "I get in there, fight some guys that are tough, and they try to take my head off, but I don't let them."

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