Rivalries: Phil Davis

By: Brian Knapp
Sep 14, 2021

Phil Davis looks like a man in limbo, stuck between the gatekeepers of the Bellator MMA light heavyweight division and the Russian champion who rules it.

“Mr. Wonderful” finds himself at something of a career crossroads at an inopportune time, as he will confront American Top Team brute Yoel Romero in the Bellator 266 headliner on Saturday at the SAP Center in San Jose, California. Davis owns a 9-3 record across 12 appearances in the Scott Coker-fronted promotion. As durable as any modern mixed martial artist, the 36-year-old Pennsylvanian has never been stopped in his 29 bouts as a professional.

As Davis sets his sights on Romero in a high-stakes affair at 205 pounds, a look at some of the rivalries that have helped shape his career:

Lyoto Machida

Alliance MMA’s Davis leaned on aggression, kicks, volume punches and timely takedowns to procure a contentious unanimous decision over the former light heavyweight champion in the UFC 163 co-main event on Aug. 3, 2013 at HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro. All three judges scored it 29-28 for the four-time NCAA All-American wrestler. Machida countered beautifully throughout the 15-minute clash and largely neutralized the wrestling attack “Mr. Wonderful” brought to bear. He appeared to land most of the significant strikes in the bout, including a crackling counter left hand in the second round that got Davis’ attention. Machida turned away all of his adversary’s takedown attempts in Round 3 but nevertheless fell short on the scorecards. The two men squared off for a second time at Bellator 245 in September 2020, as Davis escaped with a split verdict and a 2-0 edge in their series.

Ryan Bader

Bader eked out a split verdict against “Mr. Wonderful” in a three-round light heavyweight showcase at UFC on Fox 14 on Jan. 24, 2015 at Tele2 Arena in Stockholm. All three judges struck 29-28 scorecards: Mark Collett for Davis, Mans Nilsson and Andy Roberts for Bader. Davis enjoyed some success with his kicks, as he attacked the legs, body and occasionally the head. However, the lack of dimension to his game eventually caught up with him. Bader scored with jabs and left hooks, mixed in overhand rights and shut down all but one of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, native’s takedowns. By the close of Round 3, Davis wore significant damage to both eyes and also showed signs of fatigue. A four-time NCAA All-American wrestler at Penn State University, Davis even surrendered a takedown to “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 8 winner in the waning seconds of the fight. Bader emerged from their Bellator 180 rematch in June 2017 with his hand raised, as his split verdict over the Alliance MMA rep gave him possession of the undisputed Bellator MMA light heavyweight crown. It covered five forgettable rounds that saw neither man seize the moment. They were met with boos from those an attendance, the lack of meaningful action prompting referee Dan Miragliotta to admonish both champion and challenger for their passivity.

Liam McGeary

The Englishman was no match for Davis. “Mr. Wonderful” outclassed McGeary across five uncompetitive rounds to capture the Bellator MMA light heavyweight championship in the Bellator 163 headliner on Nov. 4, 2016 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. Davis swept the scorecards with 50-43, 50-45 and 50-44 marks from the cageside judges, as he was awarded multiple 10-8 rounds. The Eric Del Fierro protégé painted a masterpiece. Davis struck for takedowns and advanced to full mount in all five rounds, as he methodically dismantled the previously unbeaten Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. He avoided danger on the feet and kept McGeary off-balance with a steady diet of leg kicks and basic one-twos. However, he did his best work on the ground. There, Davis shredded his adversary’s guard with sublime positional control, smooth guard passes and damaging, elbow-laden ground-and-pound. Their second encounter at Bellator 220 in April 2019 went even worse for McGeary, as he bowed out in the third round due to a jaw injury.

Vadim Nemkov

The Fedor Emelianenko disciple retained his undisputed 205-pound title and advanced to the semifinals of the Bellator MMA light heavyweight grand prix with a unanimous decision over Davis in the Bellator 257 main event on April 16, 2021 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. All three judges scored it the same: 48-47 for Nemkov. Davis struggled to get in gear, and the slow start did him no favors. Nemkov built a commanding lead on the strength of a crisp jab, well-timed punching combinations and occasional kicks to the lower leg. Davis had his moments—he cut the Russian near his left eye with an overhand right in the second round and enjoyed some success in the clinch—but failed to give the champion true pause. The win moved Nemkov to 2-0 in his head-to-head series with “Mr. Wonderful,” as he had beaten the four-time NCAA All-American wrestler by split decision at Bellator 209 in November 2018.
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