If you're at all like me, you spit when you heard that Phil Davis, the light heavyweight prospect, would be filling in for an injured Jon Jones, the light heavyweight champion, against Rashad Evans, the light heavyweight contender whom many assumed had retired because it's been so long since he's fought, at UFC 133 in Philadelphia.
Don't take this as anything against Davis, a former Division I wrestling champion who's won five UFC fights in just more than a year. As I've written in this space, he is, along with Muhammad Lawal and Lyoto Machida, one of three light heavyweights I can imagine defeating Jones. He's a fine athlete, quick and strong and with pure wrestling skills on par with those of anyone in the sport. He's creative and smart, and his trainer, Lloyd Irvin, who can be honest to a fault and is not one for empty praise, speaks very highly of him. And as far as it matters, he's the kind of fighter who can be a true star: He's handsome and charismatic, the kind of guy who can hype a fight by citing the immortal wisdom of Optimus Prime or take a nickname from a house cat and make it work.
So, I think a lot of Phil Davis, and I still thought the idea that he would be fighting for a title shot was a joke when I heard it. It must be a wonder what people who aren't as high on him think. But with a few days to consider the idea, it's seeming like a perfectly fine idea. I'm actually coming to like it.
This isn't to say that criticism of the booking isn't legitimate, of course. Start with the idea that Davis isn't ready for the main event. He would probably own up to it himself. His win last month over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira was his first against a remotely high-level opponent, and it was hardly a glorious one, as Davis struggled to take down a fighter with no known wrestling skill. Before the Evans opportunity came up, in fact, the 26-year-old Davis was planning to take a long sabbatical, during which he would focus on improving his fundamentals in preparation for a higher level of competition.
If this is so, it's also so that lots of top prospects have found themselves swimming when pitched into deep water. To cite a few obvious examples, Brock Lesnar had no business taking his first fight against Frank Mir; Georges St-Pierre had no business taking his first fight against Matt Hughes; Jones was supposed to have been a year or more away from being ready for a fighter as strong as Mauricio Rua; and Evans himself was not supposed to have been ready for Chuck Liddell. Lesnar and St-Pierre lost their fights, but probably developed better than they otherwise would have for it; Jones and Evans won handily.
Call it a guess, but I strongly suspect that Davis is the kind of fighter who would treat even getting tooled by Evans as a chance to learn and get better. He might not be ready for a title eliminator, but he isn't fragile.
The second main criticism would be that even granting all that, Evans in particular is just a terrible matchup for Davis, who may be by far the better pure wrestler but is nowhere near as good at using those tools in the cage and hasn't been up against anywhere near as dangerous a boxer. This could be true, but I don't think it is.
Evans, 31, good as he is, will have been off for 14 months by the time this fight comes around on Aug. 6. That's a long time, and I can think of very few examples of top-ranked fighters who have looked good coming off that kind of layoff. More than that, if we're being honest, the last time he looked scary good was in December 2008, against Forrest Griffin. After getting knocked out by Lyoto Machida, he looked tentative and cautious against Thiago Silva and Quinton Jackson. A strategy of just blanketing Davis isn't going to work; the younger man may not have unstoppable takedowns yet, but he's too strong and too good a wrestler to be held down by anyone, let alone a smaller fighter, and Evans' jiu-jitsu is hardly so spectacular that he wants to lay around on the ground with the long-limbed Davis.
Add in all the distractions Evans is dealing with, from controversy over his relationship with former coach Greg Jackson to frustration about losing a title shot over an injury for a third time, and it's not clear he's going to come into this fight at his best. He's vulnerable here, and that makes this a winnable fight for Davis.
The third reasonable criticism is that UFC is pulling a fast one on the public here, because there are other options. If Machida wins Saturday's fight against Randy Couture without taking any real damage, for example -- and at his age, Couture is hardly likely to deal a vicious beating -- he'll be ready for a fight against Evans in early August. Jackson, similarly, could be pulled out of a nothing-doing fight against Matt Hamill next month easily enough. Either would prove a stiffer test for Evans than Davis would, and be a more legitimate contender for Jones if they beat him. And making either fight would prevent UFC from possibly damaging Davis' career by pitching him into a contest he may not be ready for.
To me, this criticism is unanswerable, because it's obviously true. If I were running the shop, I'd have held off on making a fight for Evans at least until seeing how Machida does this weekend. That said, UFC has had a real problem over the last few years making new stars out of top young fighters. Casting the top of the marquee light heavyweight division as an endless loop of matches and rematches featuring the same three or four fighters makes a certain kind of sense. But in the end the way to give young fighters a path to break through to the top is to give them a chance to do so.
What has been successful for UFC over the years is booking fights that work no matter who wins. If Davis wins, he'll have ascended from nearly nowhere to the top of his division inside two years, and Jones will make his first title defense against a fellow phenom. If he doesn't, Evans will get the title shot he was going to get anyway, and Davis will have learned what it's like to work things out in the cage with someone at the sport's highest level. This doesn't make for a perfect scenario; circumstances don't always allow those.