When Phil Davis faced former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida at UFC 163 in Rio de Janeiro in 2013, he endured one of the most intimidating atmospheres of his career. As the two fighters met in the center of the Octagon to hear instructions and touch gloves, the nearly 14,000 fans in attendance chanted “você vai morrer” in Portuguese at Davis, which translates to “you’re going to die.”
Davis, who won that bout by unanimous decision, expects a similar environment when he returns to his alma mater — Penn State — to fight Leo Leite at Bellator 186 on Friday night. But this time, the cheers will be in his favor.
“In Brazil, people don’t care that you’re a good fighter. They only root for their countrymen,” Davis says. “They cheer for their countrymen because that’s what they do. At Penn State, other than Leo Leite’s fans and friends and family that I’m sure will travel, there will be no cheers for him. It will be Nittany Lion country. It will be hostile territory for him.”
Davis (17-4) is one of the most heralded Penn State wrestlers in the school’s history. He is a four-time All-American and won the 2008 national title at 197 pounds. Ed Ruth (3-0), who also fights on Friday’s card against Chris Dempsey, is held in just as high regard — if not more so — in Nittany Lions lore. Ruth was a four-time All-American and three-time national champion.
The Bryce Jordan Center, both fighters say, will be packed with family and friends as well as former coaches and teammates.
“Every time I compete, I want to win for myself because I just love winning,” Davis says. “But there’s also a part of me that loves to impress my coaches and show them the hours they spent in the gym with me — working out, teaching me — paid off. I share those victories with them. Having all of those coaches in one spot, there’s a lot of ‘don’t let me down’ in that room.”
State College, Pennsylvania, is three hours from Philadelphia in the east and two and a half hours from Pittsburgh in the west, so sports fandom in that part of the state largely revolves around the Nittany Lions. Football is and always has been a major draw, but wrestling isn’t too far behind.
Coached by the legendary Cael Sanderson, the Penn State wrestling team has won the national title six of the past seven years. That success has inspired rabid fan support.
“I’ve been treating it like just another fight, but this one is kind of a bigger deal for me,” Ruth says. “It’s the first time I’m on the main card as well as my alma mater. Penn State in general, their alumni system is just massive. The support for their wrestlers is insane.”
Bellator 186 is headlined by a light heavyweight title bout between champion Ryan Bader and top contender Linton Vassell. The women’s flyweight division will also crown a champion when Ilima-Lei Macfarlane and Emily Ducote square off.
But the card truly belongs to two men who once called Penn State home. Davis has won four of his past five bouts and is looking to rebound from a close split-decision loss to Bader in June. Ruth is early in his professional MMA career but has defeated all three of his opponents.
For both men, a belt doesn’t need to be on the line. A successful homecoming is what matters most.
“Holy smokes,” Davis responded when asked about what the fight means to him. “The Bryce Jordan Center is a great arena, and the fans are the doggone best. It’s a dream come true to be back.”