phil-davis-vinny-magalhaes.jpgPhil Davis is a smart guy. Too smart to do something dumb when he faced Vinny Magalhaes this past month at UFC 159, which makes you wonder about the line between smart and safe in MMA, and between safe and boring.

You see, Davis may have talked up a desire to submit Magalhaes in the run-up to the fight, but as he explained on MMAjunkie Radio recently, he actually felt no obligation to attack the jiu-jitsu ace where he was strongest, just to prove some point.

“If I find a weakness, I will beat you there,” Davis said, adding later, “I don’t need to prove how big of a man I am and fight with some huge ego and try to submit you where you’re strongest just to prove I’m this or that. That’s not the way I do things. That’s not the way you win a war. That’s not the way you do anything successfully. Not in competition.”

He’s right, of course. The way Davis opted to pick apart Magalhaes from a comfortable distance was completely unassailable from a tactical perspective. He got the decision, got his money, and went home a winner. So what does it say that the Davis-Magalhaes bout was so forgettable while Jon Jones‘ decision to beat Chael Sonnen at his own game managed to make an obvious mismatch seem memorable?

You can’t really criticize Davis for his approach. If he’d stuck around in Magalhaes’ guard and gotten himself submitted, we’d all be talking about how dumb it was to play to his opponent’s strengths. That’s how you become a cautionary tale in MMA. That’s not the way you accumulate victories and pocket win bonuses.

At the same time, I can’t say that it was a whole lot of fun to watch Davis use his strengths to exploit Magalhaes’ weaknesses for three rounds. It felt kind of like watching a movie where, 20 minutes in, you know exactly what the next hour and a half will look like. No twists. No surprises. No climactic scene where you realize that, oh my god, Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze. The third round looked an awful lot like the first, only with more sweat and heavier breathing.

If that’s what a smart strategy looks like in this sport, and if we’re not too psyched about it once we see it, what does that say about us? Do we prefer dumb game plans, in practice if not in theory? Or is it predictability that we tire of, so much so that we’d rather see a fighter attempt an ill-advised surprise instead of taking the well-paved road to certain victory?

It probably depends a lot on the fighter in question. For instance, elsewhere on the same fight card, we saw Roy Nelson knock out Cheick Kongo with the same shot put of a right hand that he’s become famous for. That was exciting, but it wasn’t terribly surprising. That’s what Nelson does. Especially when he’s fighting a guy who probably can’t take him down, and probably wouldn’t want to be on the mat with him even if he could, it makes sense for him to stand around and wait for a good look at the other guy’s chin. And since fans love to see heavyweights thump each other’s skulls, it’s not like anyone is going to complain about “Big Country” doing the same old thing.

It’s different when you’re a fighter like Davis. His wrestling chops let him decide where the fight takes place, but they don’t necessarily help him finish it. That’s how he ends up winning smart, yet still defending his strategy to fans who were holding out hope that he might do something dumb, or at least unexpected.

That’s the problem with smart game plans. They also tend to be risk-averse, and, in addition to pure, unadulterated violence, risk is a big part of the appeal of combat sports. That’s what fight promoters sell. This guy will try to hit this other guy and, in so doing, will open himself up to being hit. So when someone finds a way to win that a) minimizes risk, and b) doesn’t replace it with a bloody abundance of the aforementioned violence, it can feel like a letdown, maybe even a bore.

Is that a good enough reason for fighters like Davis to abandon their strengths in the interest of entertainment? Probably not, especially when you consider that if he’d tried it and lost, it’s not like we’d cut him much slack for his willingness to step out of his comfort zone. That’s why fighting is such a selfish sport. The fighter has to look out for his own interests – because fans and promoters sure won’t.

Davis did what was best for him, and that’s smart. Smart wins fights. Smart keeps your bones intact and your teeth in your mouth. It’s safe that way. It’s just that safe doesn’t necessarily put butts in seats or contenders in title fights. Not in a sport where, when we talk about excitement, we’re really talking about a particular brand of chaos.

(Pictured: Phil Davis and Vinny Magalhaes)

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