Sometimes, the toughest guys in the world act, you know, a little wimpy.
Rashad Evans is a little pouty these days and his friendship with Jon Jones, the 23-year-old phenom who recently won the Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight title, is clearly deteriorating .
They'll fight for Jones' belt sometime later this year and Evans isn't shy about letting the world knows he feels betrayed by Jones' decision to consider the fight.
Though they've maintained for well over a year that they would never fight each other, each man had to know that, at some point, it was inevitable. But as recently as Oct. 23, Jones was insisting he'd never face Evans in the cage, no matter the circumstances.
That was the morning of UFC 121 in Anaheim, Calif., when Jones formally signed his contract to meet Ryan Bader at UFC 126 in a bout that would pit two of the UFC's brightest prospects. UFC president Dana White said at the time that the winner of the Jones-Bader fight would move into the 205-pound division's top five.
Given that, Jones was asked repeatedly that day about facing Evans. At the time, Evans was the top challenger for the title then held by Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, who was rehabilitating a knee injury. Evans chose not to fight in the interim while Rua recuperated.
Jones brushed aside questions about a fight between himself and Evans as easily and as firmly as he had been throwing around opponents in the cage.
"Fighting Rashad is the last thing I'd ever want to do," Jones said that day. "To me, being able to call Rashad when we're 40 years old and say, 'Let's go fishing,' or something like that, that's more important than the paycheck we would get today. I train with the guy. We've had conversations about personal things."
One would imagine that those conversations included more than a few discussions about what would happen if they were on a collision course to fight. Neither man is stupid; each understands the immense talent the other possesses.
Evans, 31, is 15-1-1 and has fought a series of the best fighters in the world. He is 3-1-1 in bouts against men who held, or had held, UFC titles. That's an extraordinary mark and an indication of how gifted he is.
Jones, 23, is showing signs that he may be the Michael Jordan or the Muhammad Ali of MMA, a freakishly talented athlete who is as charismatic and charming as he is skilled.
Do you believe for a moment that these men didn't think that at some point as they were training together at Jackson's Submission Fighting in Albuquerque, N.M., that they'd be in the position where the UFC was demanding they'd have to fight?
Yet, Evans has been whining about Jones' comments in a nationally televised interview on Versus in which he opened the door a crack regarding a fight with Evans. Jones said he wouldn't say no if White insisted upon the match.
"It's Dana's world if you're a UFC fighter and we live in it," Jones said in an interview with Versus.com. "So, I respect Dana a lot and if that's what he absolutely wanted to happen, then I guess that's what would have to happen. Me or Rashad would not want to get fired over the situation, but it would be major league awkward for us. Rashad and I have a lot in common: We're both young, African American men with families. We both love to sing and have fun. We're both elite MMA fighters. We have a lot in common.
"We really clicked really well. There are so many other great fighters in the world that we can compete against. And you know, we're not animals. We're friends. We're people. We're human beings. I would hate to have to fight my own teammate. I would never want to."
It's amazing that an athlete as tough as Evans, one who knocked out Chuck Liddell, who defeated Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, who stopped Forrest Griffin, would be so bothered by such an innocuous comment.
Yet, he was. In a wide-ranging interview with an MMA blog the day after Jones destroyed Rua to win the title and set up the still-to-be-arranged match with Evans, Evans called Jones' comments in the Versus interview "some backstabbing [expletive]" and said he "felt so [expletive] utterly disrespected."
Later in the interview, Evans discusses Jones' motivation and wonders if the friendship between them had been real.
"I feel disrespected by Jon because when I think about when we trained or when we were chilling, was the [expletive] even real?" Evans told blogger Duane Finley. "Or was he trying to be a master manipulator and try to manipulate the situation so he could get what he wanted out of it?"
Part of Evans' disappointment, clearly, comes as a part of the unfortunate circumstances that led to Jones replacing him in the title bout against Rua. Evans was training for his bout with Rua as Jones was in Las Vegas the week he was to fight Bader. In training, Diego Sanchez rolled onto Evans' knee and injured it.
It wasn't so bad that it would keep him out a lengthy period of time, but he clearly needed more time to recover than he'd have and be able to keep the date with Rua. The UFC opted to keep the date and put Jones in the bout rather than postponing it.
At a meal following the weigh-in for UFC 126, Jones told Versus that Evans gave him the green light to take the fight against Rua if it were offered. The UFC had also been in talks with Rampage Jackson to face Rua as a replacement for Evans.
"He said, 'Hey man, you're going to kill Bader tomorrow and it's not going to be close and then you're going to fight Shogun and you're going to beat Shogun and you're probably going to beat him pretty good,' " Jones said on Versus. "He said, 'I'm happy for you. I see you winning this fight.' He basically gave me the 100 percent OK. He's OK with the situation. It's not like I accidentally injured him."
Evans has left the Jackson camp and taken his hard feelings with him, however.
Evans' feelings aside, the truth is that it's a good thing for MMA. This is normal business in professional sports. Its history is filled with stories of veteran athletes mentoring their less experienced teammates and, in essence, preparing the newcomer to ultimately take their jobs.
Fighters who make it to the UFC are the best of the best of the best. And there are only a handful of fighters who compete at their level, so the pool of championship-caliber opponents is small. Sometime or other, their paths are going to lead down the same road and they're going to fight.
They should see it as a business opportunity. The relationship between them is going to be a big part of the buildup of their fight, and it will help sell more tickets and more pay-per-views. The result is that the fighters will wind up making more money.
And that, after all, is why they do this. As much as some people naïvely believe fighters are doing it for the love of the game, they're doing it for the love of the game and the large paycheck that comes along with it.
White used a football analogy to explain why it makes sense. He's faced this situation in the past, with Evans and Keith Jardine, as well as with welterweights Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck, but never got to the point where he was forced to make them fight.
But he pointed out that players on both sides of an NFL game are frequently friends, but still compete hard against each other.
"This would be like the Patriots not wanting to play the Colts because a lot of them are friends," White said Wednesday. "Can you hear them? 'We're friends. Why would I want to hit him that hard? I wouldn't want to sack Tom Brady. He's my friend.' Give me a [expletive] break. That's ridiculous. We're not going that way, either."
It's great that fighters go to such lengths to help each other prepare and it's one of the things that makes MMA unique. Still, the bottom line in it is that fighting is an individual sport, not a team sport.
One of the many reasons that the UFC has grown into a billion-dollar company and essentially taken over the sport is that White has consistently tried to match the best against the best.
Clearly, the fans have endorsed that approach, and it's made White and partners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta a lot of money.
The fighters, though, have benefitted from it, too. They're getting higher purses and are making more in sponsorships than ever before because of the UFC's growing visibility.
If one of the downsides of that is having to fight a friend, so be it.
It's just a cost of doing business. It's sure not worth whining about.
- Rashad Evans
- Jon Jones