Underappreciated Evans earns his shot
CHICAGO – For the last six-plus years, Rashad Evans has basically done nothing other than win against the best fighters the UFC has to offer.
The next challenge, though, will be the biggest mountain to climb.
Evans earned a shot at the light heavyweight title against his one-time close friend, training partner and protègè, Jon Jones, by easily dispatching of Phil Davis on Saturday in the main event of UFC on Fox 2 at a sold-out United Center.
Evans swept all five rounds on all three judges’ cards in a typically brilliant performance, a five-star effort that has become so common that he doesn’t get enough credit for what he does.
Since losing his belt to Lyoto Machida on May 23, 2009, Evans has reeled off four consecutive wins, beating Thiago Silva, who was 14-1 at the time, ex-champions Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Tito Ortiz and then Davis, who entered the bout 9-0. Evans is now 17-1-1 in his pro career and 12-1-1 in the UFC. If he’s not one of the 10 best fighters in the world, there’s probably no point in ranking the fighters any more.
Despite all his accomplishments, however, Evans admitted that he awakened on Saturday with a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“Yeah, I felt the pressure and this morning, it kind of crept up on me,” Evans said. “I woke up this morning and I was like, ‘Man, I can’t lose this fight.’ You never want to lose a fight, but at the same time, it played on my mind a little more than it normally does. I really had to sit down and have a talk with myself and get my mind wrapped around it.
“I talked to my performance coach, Al Fuentes, and we talked about it, talked it through, and really got my mind on the right path again. It’s so easy to make it so much bigger than it really is.”
It won’t get much bigger than the next one. It pits a pair of bitter rivals against each other with much riding on the outcome.
It will also put friends on opposite sides. Jones still trains at Jackson’s MMA in Albuquerque, N.M., where Evans first made his name and became a star. Evans has many friends at Jackson’s, including former UFC light heavyweight Keith Jardine, who routinely refers to Evans as a brother. If Jardine stays at Jackson’s, he’ll wind up helping Jones, his teammate, to prepare to fight his best friend.
It’s going to be awkward on all sides.
[ Related: Davis outclassed by Evans ]
“Yeah, it’s tough and I hate to even put those guys in that position,” said Evans, who left Jackson’s last year after Jones replaced him in a title fight against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and won the belt. “There’s been kind of a rift. They’ve let me know, you know what, ‘I kind of feel a little problem. I have loyalties to you, but at the same time, I’m on the team with Jon.’ It sucks it even has to be that way, but the stage was set for it to happen. I feel bad for everybody else who gets caught in the collateral damage.”
It was Davis who was caught on Saturday and taking the damage. Evans caught a kick in the first round and trapped Davis in a crucifix, battering him for the final part of the opening round.
Evans’ hands were much faster and he had a more varied attack. He praised Davis, but in truth, Evans was never really threatened.
“Normally, my strategy is to strike first and use that to control the tempo of the match,” Davis said. “He was able to really use his hand speed to be more offensive than I was.”
Evans won’t get the benefit of Jones not being offensive. He is 6-foot-4 – five inches taller than the 5-11 Evans – and has an 84-inch reach, the largest in the UFC. He has become a fabulous offensive fighter with a wide variety of tools. Jones is a master wrestler and his elbows are as dangerous as any in MMA.
But Evans and Jones went at it many times in practice and Evans knows his game as well as anyone. That, Evans suggested, could be an advantage for him when they meet at UFC 145 in Atlanta on April 21.
[ Related: UFC on Fox 2 postfight ]
“I feel like I can beat Jon Jones,” Evans said. “I see areas in his game I can capitalize on. I know it’s going to be a good fight. We’re very familiar with each other. Jon Jones has one thing over other opponents that he doesn’t have over me: We’ve faced each other many times, and I’m not too worried about the mystique of Jon Jones. I know Jon Jones at his core. I remember Jon Jones when he was like, ‘Hey man, what is it like when everybody takes pictures with you?’ I see Jon Jones a little bit differently than everybody else sees Jon Jones.”
It figures to be one of the biggest pay-per-view shows the UFC has ever done. Jones will be a heavy favorite, and deservedly so.
He has grown dramatically just in the 10 months since he and Evans split. Jones is in the midst of a special run, having beaten Ryan Bader, Rua, Jackson and Machida in a stellar 2011 and doing so in impressive fashion.
Evans, though, is convinced Jones hasn’t improved enough to defeat the one man he most wants to beat.
“In some respects, that’s true [to say Jones has improved so much, the past doesn’t matter], but at the same time, there are fundamental things that stay the same,” Evans said. “There are things I feel have stayed the same about Jon. When I get in there and I face him, I’m sure I’ll be able to feel the familiarity and all those things that can’t change about a person.”
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