Bellator probably feels wonderful about its deal with former UFC light heavyweight contender Phil Davis. It’s a move that ultimately means a lot of good things for everybody involved in the decision.
Davis entered the UFC as a true blue-chip prospect. A four-time NCAA Division I All-American wrestler and national champion at 197 pounds out of Penn State, Davis won four bouts outside the UFC before making his Octagon debut in 2010. Davis wasn’t given an easy fight for his debut, though, but he emerged with the decision win when he faced perennial fan-favorite Brian Stann at UFC 109. He followed that up with a victory against fellow intriguing prospect Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 112. Davis even managed to invent new submission maneuvers — there was the “Philmura” he used to defeat Tim Boetsch at UFC 123 — on his way to becoming a top contender.
Perhaps the turning point in his career came in January 2012 when Davis faced off against Rashad Evans. Competing on a national stage, Davis looked like a deer in the headlights against Evans. The former UFC light heavyweight champ outwrestled Davis and made it clear that the former Nittany Lion still needed more seasoning. What followed was a series of fights that evoked emotions from confusion to anger. Davis competed against Wagner Prado on two separate occasions and took on Vinny Magalhaes. He emerged victorious in those fights, but virtually any of his goodwill with fans would be thrown out the door in his next outing.
The fight pitted Davis against Lyoto Machida at UFC 163. It can only be described as controversial. Davis left Brazil with a unanimous decision win, but a vast majority of MMA fans felt like Davis had been gifted the victory. Even UFC President Dana White believed Machida should have had his hand raised.
The ride in the UFC came to an end for Davis after he suffered a loss to Ryan Bader and dropped to 1-2 since the Machida fight. It marked the culmination of a run that can only be described as frustrating for MMA fans. Here was a guy who had the wrestling credentials, was training with a great camp and had opportunities to show he was an elite talent but ultimately fell short. Even worse than losing seemingly every time he’d built up some form of momentum, Davis was anything but an exciting fighter during his UFC tenure. If Davis was competing on a card, odds were the fight became the designated bathroom break for fans.
It’s no surprise then that the UFC wasn’t willing to pony up the dough to re-sign Davis to a new contract after the Bader loss. Davis wasn’t a “needle mover,” and the UFC brass decided it was best to let its top-10 light heavyweight walk to rival Bellator.
On paper, it seems like a major coup for Bellator to score a top-ranked fighter that’s still in his athletic prime. Davis is a legit top-shelf talent in the MMA world and will bring some measure of credibility to a very thin Bellator light heavyweight division. We’ve seen Bellator treat its big signings very well in terms of match-ups, which likely means it will give Davis an easy fight or two to begin his Bellator career. Should he go on to hold the light heavyweight title, as so many fans believe he will, it will provide instant validation for the title, given the wide acceptance of Davis as a talented fighter.
It also helps Davis that he’s heading away from the Octagon. He’s likely going to earn a lot more money than the UFC was willing to offer, and he gets to face lesser competition in the process. He’ll have the chance to rehab his value in terms of fan appeal, as he’s more likely to look like a better fighter while still competing on national television. Davis also becomes an instant focal point for Bellator programming instead of being lost in the shuffle of the UFC’s light heavyweight division.
Although the UFC lost a legit top-10 fighter, it was able to rid itself of the big paycheck Davis collected and open the door for a new contender to slide into his place. Davis wasn’t the type of fighter who could be considered a draw for casual or hardcore MMA fans, and he routinely underperformed during his contests. He was clearly a guy who was never going to challenge for a world title in the Octagon.
Finally, perhaps the party benefitting the most from this move are MMA fighters as a whole. We’ve seen good fighters cut from the UFC after a slight mishap — Jon Fitch, Yushin Okami and Jake Shields, for example — but Davis leaving the UFC isn’t the same. Davis is still in his athletic prime. He’s not on the clear downslope of his career. His signing also comes on the heels of Bellator bringing in Scott Coker. Whereas Bellator was once a place where guys went only if they had to, Davis leaving his place among the UFC elite shows that the Bellator cage can be a viable option for fighters. It opens the door for other high-level competitors to use it as a bargaining chip with the UFC, which should ultimately lead to guys getting paid more.
Davis signing with Bellator is one of the rare transactions in pro sports that seems to benefit all parties. Only time will tell if Bellator’s financial investment pans out, but, at the very least, Coker and Viacom have shown that Bellator is willing to bring in both recognizable names and top talent. They’ve provided an immediate boost to a weak division in the short term and could possibly have a big star in the making with Davis, if he can maximize his potential.