While Daniel Cormier and Alexander Gustafsson are the headliners battling for the 205-pound title Saturday night at UFC 192, Rashad Evans -- the one-time ruler of the division -- returns to the Octagon after a two-year layoff.
Removed from the spotlight during a tumultuous recovery stint from a pair of career-threatening ACL injuries, some fans may have forgotten about “Suga” and just how good and competitive he’s been in one of the toughest divisions historically in the UFC.
Evans plans to remind everyone about his fighting credentials when he attempts to take out rising contender Ryan Bader in what will be an important outcome in the division. UFC matchmaker Joe Silva has said he expects the winner to receive a title shot in the very near future.
The road to this return, Evans conceded, has tested him mentally and physically.
“It’s been very hard,” Evans told UFC.com during a break in preparation for UFC 192 in Houston. “Dealing with the injuries – recover from one and then thinking you recovered from one and have to do it all over again is disheartening.
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“I was out for almost a year and I put myself on the shelf a little bit longer than I wanted to. and then I came back and then it still went out on me. So it was discouraging.”
Evans reached a fork in the road shortly after discovering the cadaver ACL placed in his injured knee didn’t take. Discouraged, he wanted to quit.
Fighting at the highest level requires athletes be in top physical condition. In the UFC, with all the wolves ravenously circling at the top, Evans said a high activity rate is critical to relevance – especially at 205 pounds.
His motivation received a lift when he began coaching his Blackzilians team on Season 21 of The Ultimate Fighter against rival gym American Top Team. Evans watched as his roommate, Kamaru Usman -- a young and hungry former wrestler just like Evans was when he won Season 2 -- go through the challenging pace of the show.
That’s when the old Rashad Evans woke up.
“I stopped feeling sorry for myself and kicked it into gear and got it going,” Evans said. “Watching Kamaru go through that whole process reminded me why I started this. It was one of those things where I can remember why I did it and why I wanted to continue doing it.”
Enter Bader: the light heavyweight division’s newest trash talker.
Bader’s barrage of words began when he called out Cormier just minutes after he captured the belt against Anthony Johnson at UFC 187. The two wrestling standouts exchanged taunts at Cormier’s post-fight press conference and had to be separated by security.
Many wondered if Bader would get the first crack at the newly-crowned king, but it wasn’t meant to be. As soon as Bader found out he’d get a returning Evans at UFC 192, he began to stir the pot at an opponent once again.
Bader posted a picture of Evans with his shirt off on social media and attempted to poke fun at a seemingly out-of-shape “Suga,” saying: “@SugaRashadEvans whatever you are doing isn’t working either, starting to look like @dc_mma [Daniel Cormier].”
Evans didn’t take kindly to the jab, but also admits he likes it when his opponent tries to get under his skin. For him, the verbal sparring makes the fight easier.
“I like an opponent to trash talk a little bit. It just makes a fight that much more fun,” Evans said.
Evans plans to have a lot of fun at UFC 192. Bader hasn’t impressed Evans despite his 20 career wins, 12 of which have come in the UFC.
In Bader, Evans said he sees a man that has quit in him.
“He’ll lose a fight and not because he’s knocked out or anything like that – it’s just because he’s covering up. When a fighter covers up and a referee tells you to defend yourself, you’re telling me you don’t got it in you to go out on your shield,” Evans said. “If you get knocked out, you get knocked out. It’s just the game we play. “When a fighter covers up, it shows me that he doesn’t have that dog inside him. It shows me that when the going gets tough he’ll cover up and try to fight for another day instead of burning it out.”
Some critics wonder how much Evans will have to offer at age 36, coupled with the long layoff. But he thinks it’s foolish to question him because of the number next to his name.
“DC is 36 going on 37 and is the light heavyweight champion. When people say I’m too old it’s ridiculous,” Evans said. “They have right to question how I’m going to be when I come back because they haven’t seen me in two years. Even I have questions about how I’m going to be, but I’m optimistic.
Evans has no fear. He’s been at this game for a long time. He’s been inside the Octagon with the toughest fighters of two generations. He knocked out Chuck Liddell. He took the light heavyweight title from Forrest Griffin. He handed Chael Sonnen a loss in his final fight.
On Oct. 3 in Houston, Evans believes he will be victorious no matter what kind of fight Bader brings to him.
“When we’re both bloodied, we’re both hurt, we’re both are exhausted and we’re both feeling a little doubt, there is only one man who truly believes in himself and that’s me,” Evans said. “There is a reason he’s not getting any title shots, because he’s never been at this level before. He’s going to feel that and he’s going to crumble up and wait for me to finish the fight, because he quits.”
Matt Parrino is a digital producer and writer for UFC.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MattParrinoUFC