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April 25, 2014
By Matt Allibone, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - After 266 days, excited is probably too tame of a word to describe how Phil Davis will be feeling on Saturday.
When he steps inside the octagon opposite of Anthony Johnson on Saturday night, that is how long it will have been since the former Penn State wrestling national champion and current UFC light heavyweight contender will have appeared in a fight.
Despite not having been in the cage since a tightly contested victory over Lyoto Machida on Aug. 3, 2013, Davis is feeling anything but rusty. In fact, the no. 4 ranked light heavyweight apologized to fans expecting a close match.
"It's going to be a good fight but it's not going to be competitive," Davis said. "I'm going to win."
Entering Saturday's night's match with a 12-1 career record that dates back to 2009, the near nine-month wait isn't the first time Davis has had a long layoff between fights, with his longest having been just over 10 months (307 days) between March 26, 2011 and Jan. 28. 2012.
It's not as if Davis has simply been enjoying the down time since defeating Machida. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound fighter has been training non-stop in the gym, even making a visit to Penn State on Nov. 7 where he worked out with the team and even grappled with now two-time national champion David Taylor.
Going up against an opponent in Johnson who has most recently been competing in the World Series of Fighting since his last UFC appearance in 2012, Davis dismissed the notion that the time away from the cage would affect either fighter.
"(The layoff) doesn't really matter because I stay pretty busy in the gym," Davis said. "I've been able to focus on getting better with everything."
In a sport that involves the combination of both striking and wrestling techniques, Davis's background as a four time All-American wrestler with 116 career college wins gives him a clear advantage over many of his opponents because of his takedown skills and prowess on the mat.
Johnson, a former Junior College national champion out of Lassen College, takes a much different approach to mixed martial arts than the former Nittany Lion. While Davis relies on his speed and grappling technique, Johnson is a brawler who's best skill is his striking ability, with 12 of his 16 career UFC wins having come by either knockout or technical knockout.
On the other hand, Johnson has been susceptible to being forced into submission or "tapping-out" over his career, which happens to be one of the specialties of Davis. Having won four bouts by submission over the course of his career, Davis will have Johnson's three tap-out defeats in the back of his mind when the two square off.
"I think my skill set matches up well with his because he's not a well-rounded fighter so I'll make him look bad," Davis said. "My experience as a wrestler gives me a distinct advantage because I'll do what I want and he can't stop it."
A competitor by nature, the Harrisburg native will enter his match extra hungry, knowing that this victory could be the one that grants him an opportunity to fight for the light heavyweight title, which is currently held by Jon Jones.
As a proud alumnus of Penn State, Davis sees the athletic feats being accomplished by fellow Penn State graduates such as football players Michael Robinson and Jordan Hill winning the Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks and Olympic rower Natalie Dell winning a bronze medal at the 2012 London Games and is motivated even more to become a UFC champion.
"Penn State has a history of greatness and if you look at every sport, we have stars everywhere," Davis said. "To win a (UFC) title would be no different than those accomplishments."
When he visited the school back in November and worked out in the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex, the 2008 national champion was struck by not only the talent but also the work ethic of head coach Cael Sanderson's squad.
Watching the Nittany Lions enter the final session of the 2014 NCAA Championships in a tight race with Minnesota for the team title, Davis had no doubt that they would win their fourth consecutive national championship.
"Winning four straight (titles) is pretty amazing but it's what I expect at this point," Davis said. "They're losing two of the best seniors in the country (Taylor and Ed Ruth) next season, and I still expect them to finish first. The intensity and the coaching in that wrestling room is like nothing else."
Davis laughed when asked if he spun the idea of fighting in the UFC to Taylor and Ruth when he met the fellow four-time All-Americans, but said that he sees the same fire in the two national champions that he has himself.
If there is one thing that man nicknamed "Mr. Wonderful" learned from former coach Troy Sunderland when he competed at Penn State, it's that a great competitor can't be persuaded to do anything, they have to want to accomplish it all on their own.
That's the attitude that attracted Davis to wrestling, and it's the same attitude that he carries with him not just in the cage as a mixed martial artist, but in everything he does in life.
"You don't wrestle because your dad told you to, you do it because you love the sport, and if you don't want it I can't help you," Davis said. "The most beneficial thing I learned wrestling at Penn State is that if I want something done, I get it done myself. There's no passing and no timeouts in wrestling so you have to create your own opportunities. It's a lot like life."
How his bout with Johnson turns out and whether he gets a title shot remain undecided, but whatever happens, there is no doubt that Davis will continue to strive for his goals, both as a fighter and as a person.