With all the hype surrounding the replacement of the injured Mark Munoz with Michael Bisping, a casual observer would be inclined to think Chael Sonnen vs. Michael Bisping was indeed the true UFC on Fox 2 main event TONIGHT (Jan. 28, 2012) from the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.
But, lurking above that match up on the marquee is this excellent showdown of talented light heavyweights between Rashad Evans vs. Phil Davis, with title implications, to boot. Endlessly vexed, it seems, in his pursuit of another crack at the 205-pound belt he lost to Lyoto Machida, Evans finds himself pitted against an exceptionally talented dynamo in Davis, whose blend of elite wrestling and imposing physicality make for an interesting match up.
Simply put, Evans may have champ Jon Jones on his mind, what with the endless back-and-forth the two have had since their much-publicized falling-out last year, when Jones stepped in for the injured Evans to decimate Mauricio Rua to win the championship. That's because Davis has the mix of wrestling chops, bigger frame and a considerably tough style match up to scuttle Evans' hopes at a title shot.
At times, Davis can seem a clear-cut phenotype of the new breed of mixed martial arts (MMA) talent. A 197-pound standout and national champion at Penn State University, he goes well beyond the expectable template for a top college wrestler with just nine fights under his belt.
For while Davis possesses expectably great takedowns, he doesn't just camp in top position once he gets there -- he'll deliver punishing strikes, hoist a knee in the air and bash it into his opponent's midsection, or work for inventive submissions, such as the Anaconda choke he nailed to finish Alexander Gustafsson, or the behind-the-back kimura that made Tim Boetsch surrender.
In his toughest and last fight, he decisioned a very competitive Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in taxing bout where Davis had to work exceptionally hard for takedowns, while avoiding submissions. It was the kid of thumbs-up litmus test you like to see a young prospect get, and with that behind him, he should, ostensibly, be ready for the likes of Evans.
Meanwhile, the ex-champ has looked his consistent self in three outings since losing the title to Machida. A pair of decision wins of Thiago Silva and Quinton Jackson showed Evans' excellent grasp of gameplanning and conditioning, where he implements his strengths and mitigates his weaknesses.
Evans is not a power wrestler in the standard light-heavyweight mold -- his credentials are nowhere near Davis.' Instead, Evans is a very smart fighter who rarely makes a glaring mistake. He keeps the fighting standing until it's to his advantage to take it to the ground. He doesn't waste strikes and he contests every takedown battle with the right techniques you'd expect, while punishing opponents once he can get into an advantageous position. And his stand up is one of the best elements of his arsenal. With quick hands and numbing power, he can punish opponents in the blink of an eye.
The running joke in Evans' camp leading into the Nogueira fight was when reporters would ask him about Jon Jones. The two have much in common, so it's really no shocker the question came up frequently.
In the Octagon, like Jones, Evans has some shocking flashes of ability, using an excellent takedown shot that simply cannot be stopped at times. He also seems increasingly comfortable with the standup game, but he does have holes in his transitions between striking, clinching and grappling; in some instances it appears as though he's left hanging when he'll try an exotic move that leaves him exposed, be it a high kick or a wide-open punch where he's left reaching.
Evans has to capitalize on these, as Davis leaves holes in the stand up phase of the game, and Rashad's right-hand counter is the perfect weapon.
Another X-factor will be how much Davis decides to stand on the feet before essentially going all-in and trying to force a battle of takedowns. Evans has shown outstanding takedown defense in fights, as he reacts quickly when foes try and plant him on the mat, and he's got top-notch scrambling ability to deny opponents time to stick him to the mat and secure position.
He's extremely hard to hold down, and the battle on the ground -- especially early -- could prove a big momentum-changer depending on who wins it. At this point, I'm not sure Evans can take Davis down too readily outside of an early strike that makes it possible. "Mr. Wonderful" is an outstanding wrestler, but if he makes a mistake transitioning between the phases of striking and wrestling, that's precisely where Evans will take advantage, as "Suga" did against "Rampage."
Another key factor is conditioning. Evans looked like he was somewhat gassed in the last round of the Nogueira fight, but that was his first taxing, distance bout against world-class competition. He'll know his body better this time and should be more comfortable parsing out his efforts. For Evans, he's got to put some leather on the young gun early and take his confidence away, and ring his bell, big-time. Make him feel like a bunny rabbit on some strange and frightening planet.
Otherwise, Evans' wrestling and bigger frame will carry the day in a grinding bout.
This is the toughest fight on the card to pick, with some compelling implications for the winner. Evans is the more finished product, with a well-rounded game complemented by a chip on his shoulder for the title shot he's obsessed with. Davis, however, may be the better long-term product to win the title back. I don't see Evans ever being competitive with Jon "Bones" Jones, no matter how hard the UFC tries to sell it, but I can reasonably see Davis giving the champ a good go with some more time to polish his considerable game.
However, in spots, Davis still looks raw, but gets away with it because he's a phenomenal wrestler and a great all-around athlete. Evans could tap into one of these sequences and scuttle everything.
The big factor is how Davis responds if he can't get a takedown early and is stuck in a fight where he's not winning the stand up in the first couple rounds -- that will be a real test of his ability to adjust. Technically, Evans is better on the feet, but Davis just has more grappling chops and horsepower.
Look for some frenetic exchanges early as Evans looks to make a point, and Davis responds with some surprisingly effective standup of his own, nailing a takedown or two midway through the fight to swing the momentum his way. It will be nip-and-tuck down the stretch, but I think Davis will survive a scare or two en route to getting enough takedowns and big strikes to win via close decision in a rousing bout.
Davis via decision
Be sure to join MMAmania.com this evening for LIVE, detailed UFC on FOX 2 results of all the "Evans vs. Davis" action on primetime. It will include blow-by-blow coverage of the "Prelims" under card bouts, and of course, the network telecast. We'll start RIGHT HERE at around 5 p.m. ET and carry straight on through into early Saturday morning.
See you then!
Jason Probst can be reached at www.twitter.com/jasonprobst