Rashad Evans attempts to regain the UFC light heavyweight title this Saturday night when he faces former training partner Jon Jones in the main event of UFC 145...
Rashad Evans was always the young gun – flashy, fast, powerful, able to leap tall buildings in a single…you get the picture. He’s not that guy anymore. The skill is still there, the power and the speed seemingly undiminished. But at 32, he’s the old man compared to his opponent in the main event of UFC 145 this Saturday night, light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.
Evans knows what he brings to the Octagon this weekend, so you get the impression that such talk doesn’t bother him, but watching his alternatively intense then bemused looks in the lead-up to the bout show a former phenom that has settled into the role of wily veteran. You may think you know what he’s thinking or planning, but you really don’t. And even after countless interviews to promote one of the organization’s biggest bouts this year, he has yet to show his cards.
That’s something that only comes with time and experience, and Evans has both on his side. It wasn’t the case when he held the title, when his consecutive knockouts of Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin forecast a long reign that ultimately ended in his first defense against Lyoto Machida in 2009. Four wins later, it remains the only loss of his pro career, and that’s with good reason, as he’s learned from the mistakes he made when he was on top.
“One thing about it is that I just control the people around me and not let them make a big production out of everything, and that’s what happens sometimes,” said Evans. “When you get to a certain position, everybody wants to help you, but they really want to help themselves in a sense. So by helping you, they’re really helping themselves. Everybody has a bit of advice, everybody has a new way you could do this, everybody has a new way you can get better, and I don’t know everything and I don’t claim to, and I find great enjoyment learning, so I can learn anything from somebody, but at the same time, you gotta tune it down a little bit and cut down on the noise, because if you get too much coming in at one time, it’s gonna become a distraction, and it doesn’t help you at all.”
If there’s one thing surrounding Evans’ opponent, Jones, in the last few weeks, it’s been plenty of noise. The phenom from Endicott, New York is seemingly everywhere, and while he appears to be taking everything in with a certain level of grace, Evans showed that same poise when he was holding the belt, and look what happened in the Octagon and behind the scenes. So when Evans talks about Jones and what he expects to happen if he doesn’t keep everything together physically and mentally under the intense pressure and scrutiny he’s under, it bears listening to. Yet while Evans hopes to precipitate that fall from grace by taking the belt from his former training partner this weekend, when asked if he would feel some empathy for Jones should that fall happen, “Suga” says he would.
“I can say that, and I’ll say that to him,” he said. “Because honestly, as much as I want to destroy him and beat him and shock the world and prove who I am, a part of me goes out to him because I know he’s setting himself up for a fall and I don’t know if he can take it. He’s wrapped himself up in a lot of falsehoods and I don’t know if it’s because he’s young, but he really can’t see the fall coming. And when I say this, I don’t want to make it seem like with everything in life you always have to be like ‘oh, I can’t do this because I’m gonna fall.’ No, you can reach for the stars, but you have to understand a fall for what it really is. And there’s usually a lesson to be learned every single time you gotta take a step back, and if you can find a lesson, you can become stronger from that fall. But if you don’t understand it for what it is and you don’t accept the fact that it’s going to happen, when it does happen, your denial about it makes sure you don’t grow from it. I don’t know if he’s gonna be able to handle that part, and I wish for him to because honestly, I like Jon in some ways and I developed a relationship with him when I was training with him, so a part of me roots for him and hopes that he does well in life and stuff like that, but he’s delusional sometimes.”
Some would say that’s a necessary evil for all fighters, to lie to themselves and say getting punched, kicked, and choked doesn’t hurt, and that all that pain is only in their mind and not in their aching limbs. Evans agrees…to a certain extent.
“I think you need to be delusional sometimes, but sometimes you gotta be rational,” he explains. “I think what happens is that when you become too delusional in life, you lose touch with reality and that’s bad. You have to keep at least one anchor close to land, just in case you gotta pull yourself back to shore. You don’t want to be way out there and get a hole in your boat and be shipwrecked and not know how to get back, because that’s when fools get crazy. They get too far away from reality.”
And for all the trash talk and bad feelings surrounding this fight, Evans is grounded in reality. When he says he’s going to beat Jones, it’s not out of arrogance but in a belief in his skills and his training. And when he assesses the champion, he doesn’t dismiss him as a young, wet behind the ears, kid. He knows what “Bones” brings to the table, and he’s prepared accordingly.
“From the first time I trained with Jon, I knew he was gonna be really good,” said Evans. “I never knew how fast he was gonna be good because somebody can be good in the practice room but really not good in the fight. So when I saw that his mental game was just as good as his physical game, I knew there was no rate on how fast he could go because he actually believes a lot of the stuff that he says, and I’ll tell you what, belief is 99.9% of it. If you believe, you can go really far with this just on belief alone.”
It’s a surprising admission from Evans, considering that his eight year pro career has proven him to be a master of the mental game. With one comment, one gesture, or one move, he can take an opponent out of his element and play him like a video game. He’s done it for years, and in the lead-up to the fight, he’s poked and prodded Jones to find the weak spot and get in his head. Jones looks to have weathered that storm nicely, but with the exception of pre-fight pushing or jawing matches (none of which have happened here), the true winner of the mental chess match only shows up on fight night. So expect Evans to continue to try and work his magic every minute until that bell rings.
“When you’re able to make somebody go somewhere mentally where they haven’t gone before, that’s always a good thing because with that, you get a new reaction and a new way, and it’s gonna be interesting to see how he (Jones) handles that,” said Evans. “He’s gonna try and divorce himself from all the feelings that he has towards me and towards the situation and try to make it like a normal fight. But with the added pressure and everyone around, it definitely has to seep in a little bit. He feels like he’s fighting for the honor of Jackson’s gym, and he’s here to defend his master, Greg Jackson. And I’m sure Greg is putting things in his head like oh man, you’ve gotta beat Rashad because Rashad has said this about me, and I offended Greg, so I think that Greg is now wanting to see me get beat.”
If anything has been made clear throughout the year long buildup to this fight, it’s that Evans’ true animosity may not be with Jones, but with Jackson, his former coach. And deep down, that animosity may hide a deeper hurt about how things played out when Evans and the Jackson’s MMA team split after Jones won the 205-pound belt in 2011.
“It (the split) just lets me know what people are about sometimes,” said Evans. “People are about their best interests, and Greg is no different. At one point, we came up together. If it wasn’t for the fighters out of his gym, nobody would even know who Greg Jackson is. He would just be a guy in Albuquerque who has pretty good jiu-jitsu and pretty good MMA, and another guy who had a gym. It was the fighters that actually got him known, and through what he showed us and through what we experienced together, we created something that the world is talking about, and other fighters sought him out to be a part of the team. So when he looks to destroy me, he’s destroying a piece of himself because without me, he wouldn’t be. Without Keith Jardine, he wouldn’t be, without Georges St-Pierre, he wouldn’t be, without Diego Sanchez, Joey Villasenor, or Nate Marquardt, he wouldn’t be. We were the guys who made Greg Jackson the guy who people wanted to come to.”
At this point, a day removed from the big fight, Evans is talked out. He was talked out weeks ago, as his days were filled with questions about his sparring sessions with Jones, their former friendship, and every intriguing angle revolving around this match of 25 minutes or less.
“I’m so tired of it I can’t even go on Twitter or any social networks because that’s all everybody’s talking about,” he said. “That’s good to an extent that everybody’s talking about it, but I can’t escape it. If I post a picture of me doing something else, somebody would say something like ‘oh, you should be training for Jon Jones.’ They must think I just sit in the gym and train 24/7 and do nothing but that, and only break to go and eat, and when I eat, I only eat salads.”
Evans laughed, finding a spark of humor in the midst of the madness. He’s been here before, comparing it to another long-simmering grudge match, with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. Evans made it through that process painlessly, winning the 2010 bout via decision and putting that feud in his rearview mirror. It showed a lot about how far he had come since the Machida fight, and in subsequent wins over Tito Ortiz and Phil Davis, he also showed off his versatility and finishing power (against Ortiz) and his ability to go five rounds for the first time (against Davis).
So he’s ready for the dynamic Jones and whatever he brings to the Octagon. Sure, Evans is older now, but he’s also wiser, and with that wisdom comes the realization that nothing lasts forever, so that when you get your time to shine, you need to make the most of it.
“Right now, this is my moment in time to embrace this and enjoy it for what it is because the truth of the matter is, it won’t be like this always,” he said. “These fights are few and far between, so when you get an opportunity like this, you just gotta enjoy it. So whenever I find myself getting frustrated, I just try to enjoy it because before you know it, it will be all over with, I’ll be an old man telling a story about when I fought Jon Jones. (Laughs) I understand what can happen in a fight of this magnitude and what can happen when you get caught up too fast with everything around you and how it can drain you and really make the fight bigger than what it is. What this fight comes down to is that this is a guy that I know very well, this is a guy I used to train with, and this is just another sparring session after we haven’t faced each other in a long time. So it’s gonna be interesting.”