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Rashad Evans: Refocused and Ready To Fight

"It’s really refreshing to just allow this fight to speak for itself." - Rashad Evans

All that matters is this fight.

The last fight is history, and what comes next is completely unknown, so heading into UFC 161, all Rashad Evans is thinking about are Dan Henderson and the task at hand.

That’s a very different mindset and set of circumstances than what the former Ultimate Fighter winner and UFC light heavyweight champion has usually encountered during fight week.

A fixture at or near the top of the 205-pound weight class for the better part of the last five years, each of Evans’ last 10 or 11 fights have been accompanied by championship implications and one eye on the future. For the first time in quite some time, the former Michigan State Spartan isn’t paying attention to anything other than making his 17th trip into the Octagon Saturday night at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

“It’s really refreshing to just allow this fight to speak for itself,” said Evans, who will headline his 11th UFC event this weekend. “There are so many times when I compete it always becomes about what’s next and what’s next and what’s next. If all the while you’re considering what’s next, you’re not looking in front of you at what’s happening right now – you’re not really present.

“My last fight when I was going to fight Nogueira,” Evans continues, referencing his UFC 156 encounter with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, “all everybody was talking about was me fighting Anderson Silva. I’m like, `Wait a minute – I’ve gotta get past Nogueira.’ Then I lose, and nobody’s talking about Anderson Silva no more.

“It doesn’t matter. All the hypotheticals? It absolutely means nothing, so what’s the sense in talking about it? I’m going to let my body of work speak for itself.”

Though he enters Saturday’s contest on the first two-fight losing streak of his career, Evans’ overall body of work is rather impressive.

Over his 26 fight career – the 33-year-old has shared the cage with a who’s who of the light heavyweight division, including a pair of Hall of Famers, two fighters poised for induction next month in Las Vegas, and several fighters who remain fixtures in the 205-pound title picture.

Getting the chance to share the cage with the legends he’s faced and adding Henderson’s name to that list this weekend is something Evans takes great pride in.

“I get super-proud to be able to share the Octagon and fight against a guy like Dan Henderson. When I first started fighting, all I wanted more than anything was to compete against some of the best guys in my time, and having a chance to compete against Dan Henderson, and the Chuck Liddells and Tito Ortizes and guys like that – Jon Jones – some of the best athletes of my time, it’s amazing.”

But don’t let Evans’ sentimentality and willingness to reflect on his career be misconstrued as an indication that he’s ready to pull the plug.

During the preamble to his fight with Nogueira at UFC 156, Evans discussed his interest in continuing the analyst work he does on various UFC broadcasts once he retires in the Countdown special for the February fight card. When he came out flat in a losing effort against the Brazilian veteran, many started to question whether the former champion already had one foot out the door, including UFC President Dana White.

“I had a let down performance, and all of a sudden I’m retiring?” Evans asks rhetorically. “I was like, `Damn – I’ve only lost three fights, and now they’re talking about I want to retire.’ They’ve got to believe that I have more inside of me than that.

“I can lose; it can happen. It’s not like if I lose I have to retire because I’ve lost three times. Most fighters in the UFC have six or seven or ten losses. It’s just the lumps that come along the way, and you’ve got to get better from it. You’ve got to grow each and every time. I’m not retiring. I’m young, I’m young in this sport, and I love to fight.”

If anything, Evans envisions Saturday’s main event meeting with the former PRIDE and Strikeforce champion Henderson as a chance to press reset, and start making another run towards the light heavyweight championship. That starts with rebounding from one of the worst performances of his career.

Back in February against Nogueira, Evans simply could not pull the trigger. Despite feeling great in the back, when he stepped in the cage, the quick-handed light heavyweight was unable to get off with his hands. After 15 minutes with minimal action, he came out on the wrong side of the scorecards.

“It happens sometimes – you have those performances where you just don’t got it that night,” says Evans. “It’s what happens in competitive sports. Sometimes you’re on-point, some times it takes a little bit to get it going.”

That night at UFC 156, the charismatic former champion couldn’t get it going at all, and heading into Saturday’s headlining contest opposite Henderson, Evans says he’s not concerned about being unable to flip the switch for a second consecutive fight.

“For me, the switch has to come long before I step into the cage. It has to be something that I breathe all the way through training camp. It’s not just going to come - be able to hit a button and it shows up on fight night. It has to be something that’s there at five in the morning when I’m doing my runs or when I’m hitting my heavy bag in the garage or I’m doing whatever I gotta do.

“I gotta make sure that I’m wanting to be there, I’m enjoying it, I’m doing all the things I need to do, so that when it comes time to fight, I did all that hard work, and now this guy has to pay for it. He’s got to pay for all the hard things that I’m doing to myself because I didn’t do it for nothing.”

This time around, Evans is confident he’s done everything necessary to allow him to flip the switch come fight night. Part of that has come from working with the latest addition to the coaching staff of The Blackzilians – three-time Olympian and two-time medalist Kenny Monday.

“Coach Kenny is a man after my own heart, and he’s definitely a coach like Coach Van (Mike Van Arsdale),” says Evans. “When Coach Van left, I missed him terribly. Me and Coach Van were really good friends, and he was my coach. To lose in front of him was like a nightmare, and him pushing me helped propel me to be the fighter that I was. To have Coach Kenny, it’s great because he know how to push me along the same lines as Van did.

“Coach Kenny, he has that leadership quality that we needed on the team. When you have a guy that’s used to controlling the wrestling team – and wrestlers are animals – and keeping it regimented, it’s good to have a guy like that in control.”

While he won’t go as far as to call his recent struggles a positive, it’s clear that his back-to-back losses have impacted Evans, and helped set him back on course to compete alongside the best the light heavyweight ranks have to offer.

“It has taken the stumbles to kind of reset (my focus) because when you’re competing, and you’re used to going through the motions, doing the same things camp after camp after camp, it gets kind of monotonous, and you lose your focus a bit. You’re going through the motions a bit because you’ve done it so many times, so you kind of need those things in life that happen – these setbacks – to kind of refocus on `this is where I’m at; this is where I need to be.’”

Saturday night, he’ll be back in the Octagon, ready to flip the switch against Henderson, who he expects to come out aggressively, looking to cut off the cage and control the distance, something he was unable to do in his previous bout with Lyoto Machida.

Evans, however, wants to make one thing clear to his 42-year-old foe.

“I’m not running; I’m not going nowhere. I’m not going to be trying to evade too much. If he comes to my area, he’s going to get fired on; that’s basically it.

“If he wants to, we can just burn it out in the center of the Octagon and see who’s left standing.”

Do those words sound like a man ready to retire?