They say you can’t truly know a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. Despite the fact that I could never fit into a pair of Phil Davis’ loafers, I slipped on the NCAA Wrestling Champion’s metaphorical sneakers for one full day as he prepared for his upcoming fight against Wager Prado at UFC 153 on October 13.
I wasn’t about to interrupt an NCAA Wrestling Champion during wrestling practice. Imagine disrupting a pit bull chewing on his favorite bone. So, I wait. Practice is well underway at Alliance Training Center in Chula Vista, California. The wrestling mats
swarm with dozens of fighters of varying sizes. UFC veterans Jeremy Stephens and Jake Shields work pummeling drills in the ring. UFC Bantamweight Champion Dominick Cruz, undaunted despite coming off a knee surgery, works a double-helix bag, with a massive knee brace immobilizing his left leg. Clearly, Phil Davis has surrounded himself with good people.
Phil moves from training partner to training partner, working drill after drill. The man has likely worked each exercise thousands upon thousands of times during his career. And yet, here he is, meticulously practicing a double-leg takedown with the attention of a newbie pulling his fi rst pair of wrestling shoes out of the box. Bellator Lightweight Champion Michael Chandler is running practice, a standout All-American wrestler from the University of Missouri. That’s how it is in a camp with good chemistry, everyone learns from everyone. Iron sharpens iron. Check your egos at the door.
UFC light heavyweight Brandon Vera is the majority owner at Alliance MMA, the single toughest building in the San Diego area, and judging by the clientele, it singlehandedly keeps the San Diego tattoo industry flourishing. It houses tons of mat space, a weight room, ring, cage, and some of the best fighters in MMA. Busta Rhymes’ insanely fast rapping accompanies the sounds of Chandler’s yelling and bodies hitting the mats. It’s an environment that Phil understandably desired.
While Vera is the owner, Cruz is the general. In 2008, Cruz and Davis crossed paths at a wrestling clinic in Pennsylvania, a few weeks after Davis won his National Championship for Penn State. Wrestling is to Pennsylvania what high school football is to Texas. Phil is a hero in his neck of woods. Combine that with the kinesiology degree he earned at Penn State and you’re talking about a young man who doesn’t need to take knees to the grill for a paycheck. But he did, and here he is. Vera needed a wrestling training partner, Davis needed an MMA gym. Cruz took the initiative and invited the Pennsylvanian to train full time. It was a perfect match.
“There’re a lot of better things to do with your time than wrestle with Phil Davis,” says Phil’s training partner, who is shuffling off the mat, out of breath. “I drew the short straw.” Practice is over, and I finally get some face time. The first thing you notice about Davis is an unwaveringly pleasant demeanor. His laidback character is surprising for a man who cashes his checks after breaking another human being. I’ve seen more stressed out individuals lounging on a beach in Hawaii. He approaches life the same way he approaches fighting, something to be enjoyed.
Phil has errands to run, and I wasn’t invited. While he has no problem allowing me to follow him around for nearly 12 hours, he knows how to handle life in the spotlight and maintain his privacy—a skill he learned while in the spotlight wrestling for Penn State. I could tag along today, but under his terms.
“Errands are done. All I’ve got are sprints and mitt work, and then we’ll get some dinner…on the house,” Davis says with a smirk. Before I can show any gratitude for what I think is a free dinner, Davis quickly jumps in, “House, being you.” You try saying no to Phil Davis.
We hop in Phil’s car—a place where he spends hours a day shuttling from practice to practice—and drive to a local high school to meet with Chad Macias, a man I mistakenly address as Phil’s strength and conditioning coach. “I hate that term,” Macias blurts out. He considers himself a kinetic physiologist, and his work goes far beyond sprints and pushups.
Macias, decked out in black and white Jordans, cargo shorts, and tattoos, explains why he is different. “The guys in my field, I’ve forgotten more than they know,” he says. During Phil’s sprints, Macias is keeping time, taking Phil’s heart rate from a monitor strapped to his chest, and logging the information on his notepad. When the sprints are done, he takes a blood sample from Phil—a human being turned science experiment.
Without stating too much of the obvious, Phil is an incredibly gifted athlete, “In the top two I’ve worked with,” according to Macias. Looking at his physical frame is one thing, watching him move it is something else. Aside from wrestling, Phil ran crosscountry and played tennis in high school. How good was he, you ask? “I beat Chandella Powell’s butt,” jokes Phil, referring to the former UFC ring girl. “The Ultimate Insider flew her out, and we played against each other. She was All-State or something, and I smashed her!” Phil being Phil.
After driving on seven different freeways going no less than 80 miles per hour, we arrive at Alliance East, the sister gym to the original Alliance Training Center that is owned by Dominick Cruz, whose WEC belt sits on the front desk. Just above it and painted on the wall reads Muhammad Ali’s famous quote, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, don’t quit. Suffer now, and live the rest of your life as Champion.”
The disparity between Cruz and Davis is intriguing. Davis’ casual character is only highlighted by Cruz’s intensity. Cruz paces the gym, held back only by his massive knee brace. He looks out of place when he’s not in a cage punching another highly trained fighter. Davis, with his trademark pink t-shirt, looks like he should be skating on a half pipe, sipping on a Mountain Dew. It’s a discrepancy Phil acknowledges. “You could book Dominick a fight for December 2014, and he’ll put that guy’s picture on the wall and stare at it, screaming and shadowboxing.” Two incredible fighters, two very different men.
Phil has only lost one fight—the headliner of UFC on Fox 2 against former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Rashad Evans. Phil lost a unanimous decision, snapping his undefeated record at 9-0. After a loss, practice is a little different, training a little more intense—even for a guy like Phil. The positivity and glow in a fighter’s eyes after a job well done is replaced by a solemn dedication to right a wrong. Training is no longer business as usual.
Boxing coach Adrian Melendez finishes working with Phil—10 rounds of mitts then the heavy bag—and tries to explain the loss, always an impossible job for a trainer. It starts with phrases like “Everything that could go wrong, did” and ends with “It won’t happen again.” They are comments stemming from equal parts confidence, questions, and doubt—a question that rarely has an answer.
One answer did surface. In the Evans fight, Phil was apprehensive in the striking game against a seasoned stand-up fighter. Although Evans was a collegiate wrestler, his boxing focus has made him a feared striker, while Davis’ focus has been submissions.
The hole in Davis’ game is only amplified by his ability in the other areas of martial arts, namely, wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. His natural ability, combined with the tutelage of Lloyd Irvin, quickly turned Davis into a real submission threat. He tapped out Tim Boetsch with a one-armed Kimura, which he dubbed “The Mr. Wonderful.” “Ooooooh man. I have turned into a ninja on the ground lately. The better I get on my feet, there’s a ratio of 2 to 1. If I’m a 10 on my feet, I’m a 20 on the ground.”
It’s this fast progression many fans of the sport forget. After one loss, it’s easy to assume a prospect was touted higher than his ability. Phil puts it into perspective. “I first punched a guy in the face in 2008, and just over three years later, I’m fighting the number two guy in the world.” Imagine stepping into your first day of law school and three years later you’re testifying in front of the Supreme Court. Phil understands where he is and where he needs to go, even if others do not.
After experiencing Disneyland’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (the Phil Davis version along the freeways of San Diego), I get my final sitdown of the day. The standard questions come up. Are you a violent guy? “Punching a guy in the face is like weaving a basket,” Davis replies. He says he would fight teammates Brandon Vera or Alexander Gustafsson again for the belt—a statement that seems coldblooded had it not come from Phil’s mouth. Phil wears pink for breast cancer awareness at no charge every time he fights. There’s a heart in there somewhere.
His opponent Wagner Prado has not come up once, a symptom of Phil’s mentality in training. “Sometimes I feel like you’re barely fighting your opponent. At best, he’s in front of you for 25 minutes, and you’ve prepared for two or three months. I’m preparing
myself for this fight. He may very well get injured before the fight, I hope he doesn’t, but it happens. I’m not preparing to beat any one guy. It doesn’t make sense to prepare to beat a person. When I’m the best, I’ll beat anyone.”
Phil finishes his seventh Sprite. Seventh. Whether his taste for the lemon-lime beverage came before or after he appeared in a nationwide advertising campaign with Sprite is anyone’s guess. We finish dinner, Phil picks up the tab (I knew it all along), and he leaves me with one more gem. “My career is not going to end after this fight, win or lose. I will still fight again, barring
something crazy or some serious injury. You just have to train for yourself. I don’t want to train for some guy and harbor some kind of hatred for him. He [Prado] is stoked. It’s his first fight in the UFC. He told all his boys he’s fighting Mr. Wonderful. All his friends are going nuts right now. It’s a good feeling. No reason to hate the guy. He’s having the time of his life.”
And that’s exactly what Phil is doing. Today, he trained three times, ran errands, and answered some random reporter’s questions, all with a smile. On television and in the cage, the glitz and glamour of a UFC fighter seems incredibly appealing. In the trenches, the weeks and sometimes months leading up to a fight, a training camp can dull the image quickly. Wake up, eat, train, rest. Wash, rinse, repeat. For a guy who could have done nearly anything with his life, MMA fans should be happy to have him. He sure is happy to be here.