Four months ago, at UFC 123, Phil Davis, a 26-year-old light heavyweight prospect who is two good wins away from serious title contention, cinched the veteran Tim Boetsch in the sort of hold that makes you squint, on the off chance that you didn't actually see what you thought you saw.
From the north-south position, Davis wrenched Boetch's arm behind his back with his left, then locked both hands behind him. Was it a modified kimura? A hammerlock? Whatever it was, it won Davis an $80,000 bonus for the best submission of the night. He calls it Mr. Wonderful, after his own nickname, a tribute to a cat who was stolen when he was in college. (Students, as he notes, will steal anything.)
"You might see it this fight!" he told me the other day when I asked when we'd see the move again. "You might have to wait until the next fight. I don't know. If the opportunity's there ... I don't script my fights. It's all improv. I just go out there and make it happen."
The Davis knack for submissions -- he's tapped three of his past five opponents -- is frightening not in its own right, but because he'll be able to put most fighters he'll ever face in a prone position at will. A former Division I national champion and four-time All-American out of Penn State, he has one of the stronger wresting backgrounds in the game, and concomitant respect for sound technique. Which makes it slightly ironic that he may be best known right now for a freaky submission that worked as the functional ground equivalent of one of Jon Jones' striking barrages. Talking about the kind of work he admires as he tries to define his own form, his mind goes right to one of the soundest and least exotic of the great fighters.
"I still don't even think I have my own fighting style yet," Davis said. "Maybe I'm one of those guys that just beats the crap out of everyone with the bare basics. It's crazy. There are those guys out there that don't do anything flashy, don't do anything crazy. Take yourself a Dan Henderson. He just has a right hand! It's unstoppable. He has good wrestling, but when I think about big-time flashy moves, I think about the man who has a good, solid one-two that won't fail him. And that is a man who makes his bread and butter off of basic fundamentals.
"He's a man who is so good at something so basic. It's one of the first things you learn -- one-two, down the center. He's doing it. I don't want to say basic like it doesn't take any skill. I mean it's a very basic fundamental, and very high percentage."
Good wrestlers -- Muhammad Lawal and Jon Fitch come to mind -- tend to talk a lot about high-percentage plays, such as inside leg kicks. At high levels, fighting is basically about efficiency; if you had no way of telling who the best fighters were by their records, you could come very close to rating them properly just by knowing how many shots and takedowns they give for those they take. What makes Davis such a fascinating prospect is that he combines that kind of mentality and skill with the aggressiveness and creativity that allowed him to hogtie Boestch with one arm. In his prime, he is going to be something else.
We'll find out whether that prime is here yet March 29, when he fights Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in Seattle. Originally, Davis was due to fight Matt Hamill at UFC's April 30 show in Toronto. That fight was scrapped so that Hamill could serve as a replacement for Thiago Silva against Quinton Jackson on that card, with Davis rescheduled against Jason Brilz.
"I was training for one guy," Davis said, "and Matt Hamill is a big fight for my career. And then it gets switched to Jason Brillz. I'm like, 'OK, all right, tough fight, not as many people know Jason Brilz as know a Matt Hamill, but he's just as tough.' "
After all that, Davis got the call to headline his first card when Tito Ortiz pulled out of the Nogueira fight. No pressure here: Why not take your first main event against a legendarily tough fighter a month earlier than you'd been training to fight?
Minotauro, in truth, is probably no tougher an opponent than Hamill or Brilz at this point in his career, but he presents a unique problem for a fighter with a fixation on efficiency. Like his larger brother, his style simply shouldn't work, based as it is on absorbing punishment and waiting for the crucial moment. It does, though. He has hard power standing and serious chops on the ground, and has fought everyone. A win here sets Davis up for a fight against a legitimate top 10 opponent. After that, anything can happen.
"It reminds me," he said of how this has gone down, "of one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite movies, Transformers, where Optimus Prime says, 'Fate rarely calls you at a moment of your choosing.' That's what it is. If it was up to me I'd do things differently, at a different time. It's not up to me. You've just got to rock it."
Is he ready? We'll find out soon enough. Davis styles himself the underdog, but he likes his chances.
"If you worry about things too much," he said, "you'll never get them done. I was one of those people that I wasn't really good at writing papers two or three weeks out. I'm good under the gun. I'm good at the last minute."
I would like to associate myself with this commentary by Jonathan Snowden of Bloody Elbow, bluntly headlined "Georges St. Pierre Versus Anderson Silva Is Bad For The Sport." I have been writing a lot about weight recently, and judging by the notes I've received it seems that even a lot of sharp, observant fight fans don't understand the role size plays in MMA.
St-Pierre is a much, much smaller man than Silva is, by four inches and at least 25 pounds. If he were to add the weight necessary to close that gap, it would come at the cost of speed and flexibility; if he declined, he would simply get hammered. He would enter the fight with a profound disadvantage in reach and power, and it's questionable whether he would have the leverage necessary to work his wrestling game given how much shorter he is.
I have yet to talk to anyone in MMA who doesn't work directly with St-Pierre who thinks he would have a chance in this fight. It's not a question of skill or heart; all else being equal, St-Pierre may actually be the slightly better fighter. The problem is just that to win a fight against someone as good as Anderson Silva with a weight disadvantage, a fighter would need to be much better than he is. No one, ever, has been that much better than he is.
Aside from what a terrible stylistic matchup Silva is for him, St-Pierre is simply not a middleweight. I'm not sure he'd be able to beat Chael Sonnen, a much larger man and an arguably better wrestler. Why UFC would risk St-Pierre badly derailing his career and undermining his ability to reach his full potential the way BJ Penn has in his adventures against fighters who are too big for him is an interesting question, but Snowden is exactly right when he describes the proposed fight as "a ludicrous money grab that has nothing to do with sport."
If St-Pierre is waxing everybody at 170 pounds, so be it. Some people may want to see a muscle-bound GSP struggling against fighters of half his skill for no other reason than that they have 20 pounds on him. Don't count me as one of them.