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Joey Davis knows there are high expectations surrounding him. It comes with the territory as part of the Fab Five recruiting class of standout amateur wrestlers signed by Bellator MMA in 2016. Davis also understands that development in mixed martial arts takes time and appreciates the slow-burn strategy Bellator has followed with his career thus far. As such, he views Bellator 219 on Friday at the Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula, California, as one more step in the process of becoming a fully formed fighter.
“I think Bellator’s done a great job with me by taking their time and giving me an opportunity to be on their cards,” Davis told Sherdog.com.
The undefeated Team Bodyshop prospect will step into the cage for the fifth time when he faces 10-fight journeyman Jesse Merritt -- a man who owns a 1-4 record across his past five appearances. The pairing makes sense for Bellator, which has gone about grooming the four-time NCAA Division II wrestling champion into a future titleholder.
However, the promotion has not followed the same developmental strategy for all Fab Five members. Heavyweights Jarod Trice and Tyrell Fortune have enjoyed similar starts to Davis, with all of their bouts having taken place on the undercard against opponents brought in specifically to help them gain experience. Meanwhile, Ed Ruth and Aaron Pico saw a notable increase in competition and a sharper glare from the spotlight in their fifth fights. Ruth faced Ion Pascu, a British Association of Mixed Martial Arts veteran with a 17-7 record at the time, on the Bellator 196 main card; and Pico was pitted opposite former Legacy Fighting Alliance champion Leandro Higo in a featherweight showcase at Bellator 206.
“I think that Bellator’s done a great job with Ed Ruth, especially by letting him get into that million-dollar [welterweight grand prix] tournament,” Davis said. “Me, obviously, I took a different route, but I’m just truly honored to be a part of Bellator.”
Davis, 25, has no issues with how he has been handled, as he does not think he has earned the right to test himself against stiffer opposition. He points to his most recent outing, a unanimous decision over Craig Plaskett at Bellator 201, as evidence.
“Going off my last fight, I didn’t finish the guy,” Davis said. “I had plenty of opportunities to finish him, and I didn’t. That just shows my game is not there yet to where it needs to be. It just takes time to be the champion I want to be.”
Development has become the focus of every practice and fight for Davis. However, until recently, he was not getting in as many training sessions as he would have liked because he was trying to balance life as a professional fighter and student.
“I signed with Bellator [when] I was still in college,” Davis said. “When I signed, I had just won my fourth consecutive title, and then, I went back to school after I had my first fight. I’ve only been a full-[time] MMA fighter since December.”
Davis partook in one fight in both 2016 and 2017 before competing twice in 2018. He has not fought in nearly nine months. In that time, he worked to finish his academic requirements and will graduate with a degree in communications in May. Davis concedes he wishes he had started his MMA career sooner, but life took him in another direction.
“I wish I would have got into the sport of MMA when I was 18 years old,” he said. “If I was 18 when I signed [with Bellator], there is no doubt in my mind I would have been retired at 25, but there are things I had to do and accomplish for a different route.”
The path proved beneficial, as Davis went 133-0 during his remarkable run at Notre Dame College of Ohio. He was only the third man to go undefeated during a four-year NCAA career and the first to ever do so at the Division II level. Davis knows his wrestling skills are what pushed him to this point. He also recognizes that being a talented wrestler does not necessarily make for a smooth transition to MMA, though it has provided him with a solid foundation. Davis looks to uncle and coach Antonio McKee for guidance.
“I got to see Antonio beat a lot of guys just from wrestling,” he said. “He went a long time undefeated without really throwing a one-two-three-four combination. I think wrestlers that were champions from where they came from [can] dominate MMA very easily. Now, I’m not saying [any] wrestler that comes in and switches to MMA. I’m saying a champion in wrestling, nine times out of 10, is going to be a champion in MMA. That doesn’t go the same for jiu-jitsu guys; that doesn’t go the same for boxers.”
Davis points to boxing as a pivotal element in whatever future success he achieves. He believes the patience and timing associated with the Sweet Science will enhance his wrestling skills and all-around MMA game.
“The fight game teaches your mind to keep thinking, and thinking, and thinking,” Davis said. “So I think the more patient you are on your feet -- knowing that you can have a good sprawl -- and having a good scramble like Ben Askren [makes for] a dangerous fighter.”
Along with the information he processes daily at the gym, Davis also learns from the experiences of his contemporaries and teammates. Pico serves as a prime example. A highly credentialed wrestler in his own right, Pico rose to prominence through his standup skills; however, he has also tasted defeat because of them, most recently against Henry Corrales at Bellator 214. There, he had Corrales seriously hurt but let his guard down, became overzealous and wound up on the receiving end of a brutal knockout.
“Have I learned from Pico? Yes, a lot. [In] the Henry Corrales fight,” Davis said, “I think that he should have went in there -- after he dropped him the first time -- and got around him and probably took a leg and see what would have happened from there; but there’s just so much going on [that] you just want to get this thing over with. Your heart’s pumping, there’s a lot of adrenaline rushing [and] in the heat of the moment, bam, and you can’t do anything anymore.”
Davis sees Pico growing from the setback.
“He’s going to be a problem now,” he said. “He’s going to really damage people. I don’t mean that in a [vicious] way. I don’t know how he’s going to lose now, because he’s a quick learner. He’s very quick, and he doesn’t like to lose. This kid does things to extraordinary [levels]. He does everything right [in training]. It’s going to be very exciting to watch how he develops now.”
For a man who has not experienced defeat in high-level competition in a long time, the idea of falling short can seem foreign. However, Davis remains aware of the possibility and understands failure visits most everyone in MMA from time to time.
“I’m not afraid of losing,” he said. “Everyone wins and loses. It’s more about how I lose. I don’t want to go out there [after] putting so much work in and something happens unexpectedly, or I don’t have a performance that I want. That’s my biggest [issue].”