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LAS VEGAS – It would be easy to listen to the war of words between Rashad Evans and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and determine that Evans hates Jackson.
It would be just as simple to conclude that there are racial overtones bubbling close to the surface of their light heavyweight fight in the main event of UFC 114 on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Who knows whether Evans and Jackson really hate each other? History would suggest that they do not, and that they'll embrace in the cage after their match and rave about each other at the postfight news conference.
They're both quick-witted, sharp-tongued men. They're highly competitive, eager to regain the championship and will benefit financially from the success of pay-per-view sales. The trash talking and race baiting has generated enormous media coverage of the event, much more so than if they'd uttered the usual tame platitudes that are used by 98 percent of the fighters.
Evans and Jackson have created passions among the mixed martial arts fan base, which will result in far larger-than-normal pay-per-view sales. Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White said the card is tracking for 850,000 pay-per-view buys, but it wouldn't be a shock if it surpassed 1 million. In this kind of event, once it gets that kind of traction, sales can snowball.
It's why promoters often grossly exaggerate their pay-per-view expectations. Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer predicted that the May 1 boxing match between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Shane Mosley would hit 4 million sales, even though that was 37.5 percent higher than the previous record, because he wanted to start the dominos falling and create a perception of a sizzling-hot event.
And though Evans has called Jackson an Uncle Tom and said Jackson continually reinforces negative stereotypes about African American men, there is nothing remotely racial about this fight.
You want a fight with racial overtones, go back to 1982 when Larry Holmes defended the heavyweight boxing title against Gerry Cooney. The promotion of that fight was centered around race – Cooney was billed as "The Great White Hope" – and it clearly attempted to pit whites against blacks.
Whatever personal animosity exists between Evans and Jackson isn't so much about race, though it's the first fight in UFC history in which two African Americans have met in the main event. Nor has the bout been promoted with any sort of racial overtones.
The fight has been pitched as a grudge match between two of the finest and most powerful light heavyweights in the world who are trying to settle a personal score while a title shot hangs in the balance.
Race seemingly became a factor when, on a media conference call last week, Evans repeatedly chided Jackson about the way he portrays himself. It began when reporter Franklin McNeil of ESPN.com said to Jackson, "Rampage, being that you've been out a while, sometimes that can be a detriment but it can also be advantageous with the time off. Do you feel that having been off for a while, doing something different from mixed martial arts, can benefit you heading into this fight?"
Jackson has an offbeat, frequently self-deprecating sense of humor and he took a quick shot at himself before answering.
"First of all, what you all using them big words like that?" Jackson asked. "I don't know what the hell you're talking about."
To most of the media on the call, Jackson's retort came as no shock. It was just Jackson being Jackson.
Evans, though, wasn't among those who were amused. Not long after, he chastised Jackson for the response.
"[Expletive], you're not stupid. Stop acting like you're stupid," Evans said directly to Jackson, ignoring the media and the question he had been asked. "Stop acting like just because you're black, you're stupid. I hate – I can't stand that attitude."
At Wednesday's final news conference at the Hollywood Theater at the MGM Grand, Jackson was asked if the fight had turned racial. After UFC 67, in which he defeated Marvin Eastman, an African American, Jackson said he decided to fight harder at one point and called it "time for some black-on-black crime." He pulled the line out again following his win over Keith Jardine at UFC 96 when Evans, Jardine's best friend, entered the cage to confront him after the fight.
Jackson, though, said he meant the comments with no racial malice.
"Basically, I don't care about race," Jackson said. "I never think about race when I say things. My main objective is to entertain people. If you've followed my career, my whole career, I've tried to entertain people. I originally said 'black-on-black crime' when I fought Marvin Eastman. The day when Rashad got in my face, I was angry, just had a lot of emotions. I was really upset.
"I was [angry] and I said it and it was the last time I said it. You can't make everyone happy. I can say something tomorrow and everybody can look at it and try to make it something bad. But they can change it however they want to change it and make a race issue out of it. I still don't care what color the guy is."
Evans, though, didn't buy Jackson's explanation. He said he was proud to see a card headlined by two African American fighters, but said he's rankled by Jackson's continued effort to play to the lowest common denominator.
"The black-on-black thing and some of the things he says, I do think he perpetuates some of the stereotypes," Evans said. "Sometimes, he does it for laughs and that's part of his sense of humor. But to me, it kind of comes off like some Uncle Tom [expletive]."
Evans crossed the line by calling Jackson an Uncle Tom, one of the most offensive things one could say to an African American.
But it's not like there has been a racially charged atmosphere surrounding the fight. Evans simply has been angling for position in a division crowded with great talents and gigantic personalities.
Even though he's been one of the division's most successful fighters, Evans doesn't have the star power that Jackson enjoys.
He's got knockout wins over former champions Forrest Griffin and Chuck Liddell and a disputed draw with a third, Tito Ortiz. Yet, Evans hasn't been embraced by the UFC fan base. An easy way to get a sold-out arena booing lustily is to put Evans' visage on one of the big screens.
Jackson has twice as many followers on Twitter, the social networking site – 70,000 to 35,000 – and generally attracts more attention than Evans in public settings.
By challenging Jackson verbally, Evans is simply trying to carve his own niche. He's long been one of the most thoughtful, insightful fighters in the game and, given the custom-tailored suits he wears, he's marketing himself to the crowd that finds Jackson's humor immature.
This promotion has been little different than UFC 73, when Evans made his big-time debut by fighting Ortiz in Sacramento, Calif. Ortiz was still one of the sport's biggest stars and Evans took after him verbally, attempting to wedge himself into the public consciousness by engaging Ortiz in a war of words.
He's done the same thing with Jackson.
His best way, though, to improve his Q rating would be by backing up his words and scoring a resounding victory over Jackson.
Jackson has far more significant wins, and memorable fights, than Evans. Evans is clearly playing catch-up in that regard.
A win over Jackson, though, in front of what may turn out to be one of the largest pay-per-view audiences in UFC history, would make his case for him more than anything he could say during an interview or at a news conference.
Win, and win impressively, and Evans will find out that suddenly people have a lot more interest in what he has to say.
- Rashad Evans