“I wanted to be a police officer,” laughed Evans. “This is all extra for me.”
“This” was a stellar mixed martial arts career that lasted nearly 15 years and saw the Niagara Falls native win The Ultimate Fighter and a UFC light heavyweight title while becoming one of the sport’s true superstars. That’s a lot of “extra” and a lot to be proud of for the 38-year-old Evans, who announced his retirement from the sport Monday on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show.
A Division I wrestler for Michigan State University, Evans turned to mixed martial arts after graduating with a degree in psychology and put that degree and thoughts of a career law enforcement aside to chase glory in the fight game.
In 2005, he got that first taste of glory when he won season two of The Ultimate Fighter, not at 205 pounds, but at heavyweight. It was a shocking turn of events on the still new reality show, but Evans showed his skill, will and heart in beating Keith Jardine, Mike Whitehead, Tom Murphy and Brad Imes to earn a UFC contract.
“My mindset is, I’m gonna try to go where my opponent doesn’t want to go – we’ll see who can suffer the longest,” said Evans in 2005. “That’s basically it, and if he can outlast me in suffering, then he wins the fight. But it’s a mindset to drive yourself to suffer. My wrestling coaches used to call it mental toughness. They would dog us out in practice and make us do things that we possibly couldn’t do, but they made us feel like we had to do it. They’d say ‘mental toughness, mental toughness’ and you learn to like the suffering - you learn to welcome that feeling when it comes. A lot of people run from it because they want to start feeling okay again, but when you embrace the suffering, you just ride it out, and pretty soon, you’ve outlasted your opponent.”
RASHAD EVANS ALL-TIME TOP 10 MOMENTS
Once he had that UFC contract in hand, Evans would drop to his natural weight class, and what followed by an unbeaten 7-0-1 run at light heavyweight that saw him decision Michael Bisping, fight to a draw with Tito Ortiz and score highlight reel knockouts over Sean Salmon and Chuck Liddell.
It was his 2008 knockout of “The Iceman” that earned Evans a shot at the light heavyweight crown, and it remains in UFC highlight reels ten years later.
“My intention when I threw the punch was to throw it as fast as I can,” he recalled in 2008. “And I threw it, it went through, and I was gonna follow up with the left hook, but he was already going down. And after the left hook went by, I was like ‘oh no, he fell down. I’ve gotta hurry up and finish him.’ But it seemed like it took forever for me to come out of that left hook to turn around and get on him. It was so quiet in there, I could hear a pin drop. The fight was over, Herb Dean had stopped it, and I was in shock because everybody was so quiet.”
In that subsequent title fight on December 27, 2008, he made the most of that shot as he scored a third-round TKO of Forrest Griffin. Just like that, Rashad Evans was a world champion.
Evans would lose the title in his first defense against Lyoto Machida in May 2009, but the big fights were far from over for “Suga,” who defeated the likes of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Ortiz, Phil Davis, Dan Henderson and Chael Sonnen from 2010 to 2013. His only losses during that stretch were in a 2012 title fight against Jon Jones and against Rogerio Nogueira in 2013.
Injuries would slow him down, forcing him into a nearly two-year layoff, and as he approached the Smith fight at UFC 225, he knew that the end was near.
“I don’t look at the finish line, but I do understand that it’s a reality closer than it’s ever been,” Evans said. “But I’m okay with it. I think the biggest problem in life is when we’re afraid to let go. We want to hold on and there’s a tendency to cling, and then when you cling, there’s a fear that comes along with it because you’re afraid to embrace the unknown. For the longest time I operated in that space”
He went into that fight with a clear head and with the intention to enjoy the moment, and though he was stopped by Smith, he went out and fought, and there’s something to be said for that. So while an 0-5 run marked the final five fights of his career, that is no reflection of what he brought to the Octagon when he was healthy and firing on all cylinders. Speed, power, wrestling and an analytical approach to the game made him nearly unstoppable when he was on, and that high Fight IQ also garnered him gigs at a coach on The Ultimate Fighter 10 and as an analyst for FOX.
More importantly, Evans has always been one of the good guys of the sport, something that goes beyond his final 24-8-1 record. Sure, careers rarely end up the way a fighter wants them to, but if there is going to be one fighter who embraces the post-MMA life and attacks it the way he did his opponents, it’s Rashad Evans, who, at 38, is just beginning a new chapter.