CHULA VISTA, Calif. — Sandwiches are flying at Hungry Hank’s Deli, a local strip-mall staple slathering mustard shoulder to shoulder with a nail salon and Vietnamese restaurant. A laundromat and shoe repair shop sit near enough to breathe in the aromatic goodness.
One of the more interesting people you’re likely to meet, co-owner Phil Davis, ambles in. He’s an accomplished mixed-martial artist. He’s also a licensed real estate agent. He has officiated two weddings, including one in Guam. He’s bouncing into his business after spending much of the day home-schooling two children.
The man tests the boundaries of what seems possible in a 24-hour day.
“One thing you learn in athletics is discipline,” said Davis, 35. “It’s vital.”
Davis will face Lyoto Machida in Bellator 245 on Friday at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. The two tangled at UFC 163 in 2013 in Rio de Janeiro with Davis winning a much-debated unanimous decision against the one-time UFC champ.
No one dared to question Davis’ toughness, though. Thirty seconds into the fight, he tore a posterior cruciate ligament in a knee. He kept fighting. He won.
“I knew it. I could feel the instability in my knee,” Davis said. “I willed myself to keep a high-paced fight. I eventually was able to take him down and beat him up on the ground.”
Now, Davis charges headlong at comers of all scenarios and stripes — the other person in the ring, a global health crisis that threatened his business, educational hiccups involving his children — with a disarming smile belying it all.
When COVID-19 temporarily shut down fights, Davis made supply runs to Costco and deliveries for Hungry Hank’s, the shop he operates with his wife. The guy handing off sandwiches to customers has 137,000 Twitter followers and 95,000 on Instagram.
The man who ripped into bulk chip bags like opponents has fought around the globe, from Sweden to England to Israel. He’s so respected in the Philippines that strangers routinely yelled “Mr. Phil!” on the streets.
Real life, undefeated and top ranked, had slapped a momentary headlock on Davis’ professional career.
“Before COVID, we had nine employees,” he said. “Overnight we were down to four. For the longest time, we were working with a skeleton crew. There was a period where we definitely were worried.”
The shop that has been in the same location for decades survived because of a dedicated customer base that includes a neighboring bank and office complex, along with local police and firefighters.
“The trickiest part is not getting COVID,” Davis said. “My wife and I played around with the scenarios. We’d have to close the business until we didn’t have it. You don’t want to spread around your business and you definitely don’t want to spread it to your customers.”
The looming pandemic raises obvious, unique and potentially uncomfortable questions for those in mixed-martial arts. Masks and social distancing are not options in a world where close-quarters contact decides fates.
Davis took a COVID test before leaving for Connecticut. Another test was scheduled for the fighter and his coaches upon landing. A final test awaits the day of the fight.
“They do the best to ensure the competition is safe,” Davis said. “With the level of contact, fluid exchange is going to happen. They really make sure you’re as protected as you can be.”
The winner could move on to face current Bellator light heavyweight champion Vadim Nemkov. Bellator, the competitive rival of UFC, is where Davis became a light heavyweight champion in 2016.
At 21-5, Davis is not certain how long he will continue chasing belts, but flashed title-level perspective.
“I definitely listen to my body,” Davis said. “Like a great dinner party, you never want to stay too long. You don’t want to be the last to leave. It’s just a matter of maintaining my health and listening to my body.
“You’re always preparing for that next step. I feel a lot of guys are fearful of leaving because they don’t know what that next step is. A big part of it is constantly defining yourself beyond the sport.”
Few if any are better at scanning the horizon than Davis.
Showing a different type of fearlessness, Davis agreed to seal the marriages of two close friends. Pressure? You bet.
“You absolutely, positively don’t get a redo,” he joked.
As fights return, Davis hit pause on working in real estate. For now, he limits his assistance to family and friends. Time remaining between workouts and keeping a business on track is devoted to two sons, ages 4 and 8.
“With the 4-year-old, we’re doing our ABCs and basic addition,” Davis said. “I’m having him write his letters in finger paint and make letters with Play-Doh. Trying to keep it very tactile and engaging.”
A home-schooling wrinkle in March caught Davis flat-footed. His oldest son was involved in a language immersion class where students straddled English and Spanish.
Davis sheepishly admitted he was far from the most qualified Spanish instructor.
“Um, not so much,” he said.
The man who lettered in tennis and cross country while growing up in Harrisburg, Pa., before becoming a four-time wrestling All-American and NCAA champ at Penn State has proved himself Gumby-level adaptable.
Elite athlete. Business owner. Real estate mover. Marriage closer. Part-time teacher. Davis laughed at how his oldest son simplifies things in his complicated life.
“There’s no interest,” Davis said of his son’s reaction to each fight. “He’s like, ‘Oh yeah, you won.’ Then I go back to being dad.”
Among other things.
©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune