LET’S NOT GET CRAZY WITH DAVIS, NOT YET
Jon Jones’ amazing recent win over Mauricio “Shogun” Rua sent shockwaves through the 205-pound division. Not because Jones wasn’t expected to win. It was how he won that made everyone take a step back in awe. Jones’ physical gifts are rare, indeed. There is no other fighter in the sport who has more potential than Jones.
And there is no fighter in the sport who is compared to Jones more than Phil Davis.
Davis took his career to the proverbial next step by scoring a solid, though yeoman-like, win over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. Five fights. Five clear wins. The hype train is now headed full steam down the tracks.
Davis is definitely ready to swim with the big fish. The Nogueira fight proved that. But let’s not get crazy and place “Bones” Jones expectations on him just yet. Jones and Davis are two completely different fighters. The former has proven to be a polished, well rounded fighter who, despite his youth and relative inexperience, has yet to display a weakness. Davis very much remains a work in progress.
Saturday’s fight convinced me that, while Davis has the wrestling skills to defeat more experienced and arguably more skilled all-around fighters, he still needs work in the striking department. We haven’t yet seen that facet of Davis’ game develop to the point where he can compete with guys like Jones, Rashad Evans, Quinton Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Thiago Silva, and others who may be able to stalemate his wrestling and force a fight on the feet. At least, I don’t think he is ready for those guys yet. I certainly could be wrong.
At 26, Davis has plenty of time to develop his game. His fighting prime is arguably still a few years away. Think about how scary this guy could be if his striking gets anywhere near his wrestling game. If that happens, then there are a lot of light heavyweight contenders who will want nothing to do with this guy.
Back to the Jones comparison. I know Davis is three years older than the champ, but Jones also has three additional UFC bouts under his belt, and that is a tremendous difference when it comes to experience. Let’s give Davis a break and forget about comparing him to Jones for the remainder of 2011. Give the guy a chance to get those extra three bouts under his belt and work on his striking. Then we can start salivating over what could be the biggest fight of 2012, if these two keep winning.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES
Antonio Rogerio Nogueira arrived in the UFC in 2009 carrying lofty expectations on his broad shoulders. Casual fans didn’t necessarily know much about the less heralded twin brother in the Nogueira family, but fight connoisseurs expected him to quickly contend for a championship. A dominant debut against Luiz Cane served to fuel those expectations and educate those who know nothing of the sport beyond the UFC. It was his sixth-consecutive win, one that placed him among the division’s elite as the calendar turned to 2010, despite having only one fight inside the Octagon.
Dan Hardy was already deep into the spotlight when 2009 came to a close. In the midst of his own seven-fight winning streak, Hardy had just earned his first shot at UFC gold with a dominant win over 170-pound superstar Mike Swick. Many thought a bout with Georges St-Pierre was too much too soon for the English striker. Others thought he had just enough swagger and skill to pull off a stunning upset, particularly if GSP dared to stand and trade with him.
Then the calendar turned the page to 2010, and it hit both Nogueira and Hardy like a Shane Carwin right hand.
I don’t care what anyone says. Nogueira did not deserve the disputed win against Jason Brilz at UFC 114. I’m not knocking the Brazilian, but Brilz definitely got the best of him on that May evening in Las Vegas. Since that bout, he has dropped back-to-back fights for the first time in his career. That brings his string of less than Nogueira-like performances to three.
Hardy ran into even harsher times over the last year. When Bruce Buffer announced the outcome of Saturday’s fight with Anthony Johnson, it was the third straight time that Hardy heard someone else’s name booming through the arena as the winner. He has gone from the number one contender to a guy fighting for his UFC life in the course of 12 months.
It suffices to say that both Nogueira and Hardy are in desperate need of a win, if they want to remain relevant in the near term in their respective divisions. That is a far cry from the status they enjoyed one year ago.
Team Black House must be really frustrated right about now because Nogueira was originally supposed to face former champion Tito Ortiz, which is a marquee fight that he was expected to win in impressive fashion. Styles make fights and Ortiz is tailor-made for Minotoro. Phil Davis was a nightmarish matchup with one-tenth the name recognition of Ortiz. In other words, Saturday was a tough situation for the Brazilian, even before the fight began.
Team Rough House has to be similarly frustrated as they plot out Hardy’s next move. Johnson is a guy who loves to slug. He stands and bangs with just about anyone, so it should have been an all-action matchup that presented Hardy with plenty of opportunities to land one of his trademark bombs. Instead, Johnson took advantage of Hardy’s major weakness by relying on his deep wrestling roots to put “The Outlaw” on his back early and keep him there for basically the duration of the fight.
I have no idea when Nogueira or Hardy will next compete. What I do know is that their next opponents should be very careful because both of these guys have been backed into a corner. They have no choice but to put on a great performance next time out, whether that next opportunity comes inside the UFC or elsewhere. Nogueira is exponentially better than his UFC record suggests, and I guarantee that Hardy will move heaven and earth to avoid dropping four straight.
HATHAWAY PASSES AN IMPORTANT TEST
I absolutely love John Hathaway’s future in the UFC. This kid has the potential to be a mainstay for the next decade, if he continues developing on his current path. The reality, though, is that Hathaway is a work in progress, even more so than Davis. He might be a Picasso in progress, that remains to be seen, but he is a work in progress nonetheless.
The hard-fought win over Kris McCray at UFC Fight Night was a turning point in his career, in my opinion. For most fighters, the toughest fight of their career is the one immediately following their first loss. Hathaway was an undefeated fighter with Charlie Sheen-like confidence when he stepped into the cage against grizzled veteran Mike Pyle back in October. He got summarily dominated at UFC 120 by a bigger, stronger, more well rounded fighter.
Everyone, including those closest to Hathaway, had to wonder how the loss would affect his confidence. Would he return to action with the same sense of invincibility that he had before getting hammered by Pyle? Would he cower if faced with adversity for a second time?
McCray gave Hathaway every reason to quit in the first round of their bout. He didn’t quit. Hathaway kept his composure and found a way to win. It is difficult to put into words how important this fight was for Hathaway. Back-to-back losses, particularly against guys who have not yet earned the right to call themselves welterweight contenders, could have very well derailed his psyche for years, if not permanently. Instead, Hathaway now knows for sure that he can deal with adversity. He knows how to bounce back from a loss, and he knows that he can right the ship when things don’t go well early in a fight. Both of those mental notes will serve him well as he continues earning his way up the welterweight ladder.
MAJOR PROPS TO JOHNSON
After an up-and-down start to his UFC career, DaMarques Johnson knew how important it was to capitalize on the momentum he gained by defeating Mike Guymon back in January. He knew that he needed to rack up several consecutive wins to become relevant in one of the promotion’s deepest divisions. Yet, he opted to throw caution to the wind and take a fight against former reality show king Amir Sadollah on two weeks’ notice.
It was obvious to anyone watching the fight that Johnson’s gas tank was just about on empty when the first round came to a close. He was ultra competitive during that first round, but he knew, just like the rest of us knew, that if he was unable to stop Sadollah in the first round, things probably wouldn’t go his way for the rest of the fight. That is the reality of taking a fight on short notice.
Of course, things did not go Johnson’s way in the second round. Sadollah turned up the pace, as expected, and basically beat Johnson into exhaustion, handing him his third loss in six UFC fights. I don’t care about the loss. I think Johnson deserves major respect just for taking the fight. UFC President Dana White is probably sick of hearing his all-too-famous rant during the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” when he questioned whether the reality show contestants really wanted to be UFC fighters. Johnson answered that question with an exclamation point by agreeing to put himself in an almost impossible situation. I suspect that we’ll be seeing the man who calls himself “Darkness” compete again in the UFC sooner, rather than later.