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Jon Jones, Rashad Evans feud creates UFC 145 boon for fans

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

ATLANTA – The news that Rashad Evans had injured a knee and would have to withdraw from his light heavyweight title fight against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua had not yet leaked out. It was an injury that would dramatically alter the course of mixed martial arts history, but on that early afternoon in February, 2011, only a handful of people were aware Evans was hurt.

That same day, Jon Jones was at a news conference for UFC 126, when he'd square off against Ryan Bader 48 hours later. Back then, Jones wasn't the Messiah some view him as now; he wasn't being compared to Muhammad Ali or being courted by Nike. He was a highly regarded prospect with plenty of questions surrounding him.

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Jon Jones will face former pal Rashad Evans. (Getty Images)

 After most of the cameras and reporters left the news conference that afternoon, Jones talked about the rigors of the training camp he'd just finished and his desire to gorge on some junk food, perhaps McDonald's or Pizza Hut.

He quickly realized, though, that it was only six weeks until UFC 128, when Evans, his training partner and mentor, was supposed to challenge Rua for the light heavyweight championship. Jones said he would allow himself to go crazy after beating Bader, but not that crazy. He needed to get back to training camp at Jackson's MMA in Albuquerque, N.M., to help Evans get ready for Rua.

"I need to be the best training partner I can be for Rashad," Jones told Yahoo! Sports after the UFC 126 news conference. "So, I can't really go crazy. But I will at least have a double cheeseburger."

A day later, news broke of Evans' injury. The day after that – and after Jones had manhandled the previously unbeaten Bader – the UFC announced Evans' replacement to fight Rua in the main event of UFC 128: Jon Jones.

In a shockingly one-sided match, Jones battered Rua, mauling the legendary Brazilian as if he were a green newcomer. Since, Jones has gone on an unprecedented run, having dominated three former champions in succession. That streak has helped to make him the biggest star in the sport. He's No. 2 on the Yahoo! Sports Top 10 poll and has been called the Ali or the Michael Jordan of MMA.

On Saturday, following a bitter and still hard-to-understand split, he'll defend his belt against his one-time friend in the main event of UFC 145 at Philips Arena. How close these two fighters were, how they broke up and the feelings they have for each other now may never be fully understood. What is clear is that their match, which features two of the best 10 fighters in the world, has captivated the MMA fan base and turned the sport on its ear.

[Related: Jon Jones, Rashad Evans must put their feud on hold for UFC 145 title bout]

Greg Jackson, the highly regarded coach who founded Jackson's MMA, has taken broadsides for choosing to corner Jones. Evans' rants against Jones as being "cocky" and "fake" have resonated with a portion of the fan base.

"I don't have any regrets," Evans said on a conference call. "I felt like I've spoken from my heart and along with that I felt like I've done that. I don't think I've violated anything in that respect. That's one thing I always try to [do]. I don't want to cross the line. There's some things you can do to cross the line. I don't think I crossed the line by far, so I'm pretty satisfied with the way things went."

UFC president Dana White sensed the breakup coming long ago during a conversation he had with Evans shortly after Jones had joined his team at Jackson's.

Listening to Evans, White knew trouble lay ahead.

"Rashad and I were talking and he was telling me that he wouldn't fight Jones, just like he'd been saying he'd never fight [teammate] Keith Jardine," White said. "He said to me, 'These guys are my family. I'll never, ever, fight them. They're family.' I was pretty blunt with him. You know me. I said, 'Dude, Jon Jones is not your brother. One of his brothers plays with the Ravens. His other brother plays for Syracuse. Your brother lives in Chicago. That's your family. Your career is just this long, but your life is this long. Believe me when I tell you, if you stop fighting tomorrow, Greg Jackson and your so-called family members in that camp aren't going to pay your mortgage or put your kids through school. They're not going to pay your bills.'

"It was pretty obvious pretty early on that [Jones] was going to be right up there and that he and Rashad might have to fight. But it didn't really blow up until that TV interview."

[Related: Jon Jones is the man, but Rashad Evans' power will make for an intriguing UFC 145]

The television interview White is referring to is one that Jones did with Ariel Helwani on Versus, which was aired during a live-fight broadcast from Louisville. With his title fight against Rua still two weeks away, Jones said in response to a question from Helwani that he would fight Evans if White insisted.

Evans became irate and immediately severed ties with Jones and Jackson's MMA, marking the official start of the feud. Evans started his own team in Florida and kept up a war of words with Jones.

Jones doesn't seem thrilled to be in the position he's in, defending his belt against a guy he once said he looked up to, and says Evans' anger is misplaced. He said only a portion of his interview with Helwani was aired, and that didn't include the parts where he praised his former sparring partner. "People still haven't [seen] the full interview of how highly I actually spoke about Rashad," Jones said on the conference call. "I mean, even the Primetime show [previewing UFC 145] didn't show the full interview. I just wish people knew the whole story [and heard] that whole interview of what I actually said about Rashad, speaking my respects and loyalty to him during that interview."

The entire thing is difficult to understand, but the impact is undeniable: The result of the feud is that two of the top 10 fighters in the world – perhaps top five – are going to fight.

No matter the hurt feelings that have resulted, for the sport and for the public that supports it, that's a good thing.

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