In a recent interview with MMA Fighting, one of Phil Davis’s coaches, Eric Del Fierro, revealed the light heavyweight had yet to be contacted or offered a fight by the UFC, but that the fighter was ready and willing. Given that Davis last defeated former champion Lyoto Machida in August 2013, Fierro felt he deserved at least a top-five opponent. With Davis on a three-fight winning streak and coming off a win over such an opponent, the argument seems fair. Of course, when it comes to matchmaking, however, fair is always a relative term.

On paper, Davis is in a very promising position. Davis has faced off against three fighters currently ranked in the top five and defeated two of them. He is on the aforementioned winning streak and has only one loss on his record. By all accounts, his star is on the rise and he seems prime for a title-eliminator bout.

If “Mr. Wonderful” were a fighter in any other division, that argument would be easier to make. The issue here is that he fights in one of the most historically contested and competitive divisions in the history of the UFC.

Breaking down the top five, there is either no opponent available or no reason for them to fight Davis.

No. 1-ranked Alexander Gustafsson is booked to fight No. 11 Jimi Manuwa on March 8, so he’s an unavailable opponent. However, considering the two already fought once before and are now training partners, the match-up would be unlikely anyway, though not impossible.

The fighter at No. 2, Glover Teixeira, is next in line to fight champion Jon Jones in April at UFC 172, counting him off the list of possible opponents as well.

Then there’s Rashad Evans at No. 3. Evans is in a similar situation as Davis as far as contendership goes, and despite the fact the two previously fought in a one-sided decision which saw Evans with his hand raised, a rematch would not only make sense but could possibly be agreed upon. Evans didn’t have to contemplate the offer, though, as he will next fight No. 4-ranked heavyweight Daniel Cormier in Cormier’s 205-pound debut.

The only fighter left in the top five is Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. Davis not only defeated “Lil Nog” in 2011, but it is unlikely he would want to risk a rematch against a fighter on the tail end of his career. Besides, it is still unclear when and if Nogueira will make his return to the Octagon, as he seems to be stricken with one injury after the other.

So, unless Davis wants to wait for the outcome of these bouts to determine an opponent deemed worthy by his coach, and endure the inevitable uncertainty that comes with that strategy, then he must look elsewhere in the division for availability. But then there is the other issue of finding someone who also requires an opponent, which is where things start to get really interesting.

Dan Henderson and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua sit at No. 6 and 7, respectively. Henderson is coming off a three-fight skid, making him a less than ideal opponent for Davis, while Shogun had an impressive first-round knockout over No. 15 James Te Huna, which seemed to bring life back into Shogun’s career. Te Huna also announced he would be dropping to middleweight after suffering back-to-back losses. Between Henderson and Shogun, the Brazilian seems like the better option for Davis. Unfortunately, Shogun and Henderson are scheduled to fight this March.

Chael Sonnen is at No. 8, and while he is coming off a devastating loss to Evans, his headline status and top-10 ranking makes him a viable option for anyone wanting to make a big splash in the division. The issue here is that he’s already slated to take on Pride legend Wanderlei Silva after the two finish up their time on this year’s season of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil.

Longtime staple of the division, No. 12 Thiago Silva, would be an even more ideal candidate than many of those higher on the list. He has faced off against the best the division has to offer, is an exciting fighter to watch, and is also working his way back up the ladder. But just like almost everyone else except Davis, he also has a opponent already lined up. Silva will take on the unheralded Ovince St. Preux in March at UFC 171, and a betting man would wager Davis will be ringside watching the action take place.

Rounding out things are Gegard Mousasi, Vitor Belfort and Lyoto Machida at No. 9, 13 and 14. Mousasi will be making the move down to middleweight for his next bout, and if things go well, he will likely stay there. He will be facing off against Machida, who has already made the permanent move to 185 pounds, where he is currently ranked No. 4. Belfort has been afforded a ranking at light heavyweight because of his first-round dismantling of Henderson, but that fight was taken under special circumstances and his home is still middleweight, where he is next in line to fight for the title.

That accounts for every fighter ranked in the top 15 except for one. That one man is Ryan Bader.

Bader is one of the most recognizable fighters in the light heavyweight division, despite never holding or fighting for the title. Since winning The Ultimate Fighter 8, Bader has seen his viability as a contender rise and fall, and then seem to rise again. He has long been considered a top-10 fighter, or at the very least just outside the top 10. A win over him won’t necessarily catapult the victor into a title shot, but with so many other high-profile bouts coming down the pipe, it wouldn’t hurt. Let’s also not forget that both men who will be competing for the title next received their No. 1 contender status after defeating Bader.

Bader is still recovering from a broken hand suffered during his win over Australian fighter Anthony Perosh in his last outing, but he is targeting a May return. Davis may be trying to book a fight sooner, but the landscape of the division seems pretty clear, and unless he wants to fight someone looking to make a name for himself, like Ryan Jimmo, then he best start training for the likelihood of a May affair.

So, with four top-15 fighters either already in or planning to move to 185, and eight others with bouts already scheduled, that only leaves two fighters besides Davis without an opponent. One is ranked No. 5 and has already been defeated once by Davis. The other is ranked at No. 10 and is coming off an impressive win. Bader may not be the perfect opponent, but he’s the most ideal one given the circumstances, and in the fight game, that’s the best you can hope for. And that’s the bottom line.

  • Radio_Doc

    Great breakdown. I like to do these phantasy matchmaking from time to time too. Davis’s case and the LHW brought my attention too: he really looked out of options for me. If I would guess, I think he is going to wait a few weeks and ask to fight the winner of Cormier vs Evans while Jones faces Gustafson again (if everything goes acording to plan). Nice job, very rational thinking.

    • Justin Fuller

      Thanks for the comment. While I stand by my logic, I really like the recent announcement about him fighting Anthony Johnson at UFC 172 in April. It’s an interesting fight, a good test to see where Johnson stands, keeps Davis active, and still allows for him to face the winner of Evans-Comier for a title-eliminator, assuming things go well, especially with Gustaffson next in line if he gets a win over Manuwa. Plus Johnson is a relatively big name draw compared to anyone else who might have still been available to fight.