Warhorses Evans, Ortiz primed for UFC 133

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  • Rashad Evans
    Rashad Evans
    American mixed martial artist
  • Tito Ortiz
    Tito Ortiz
    American mixed martial artist
Much has changed since Rashad Evans and Tito Ortiz first met. But both have their eyes on regaining the UFC light heavyweight title

PHILADELPHIA – Rashad Evans, the former Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight champion, listened with rapt attention in a locker room of the Joe Hand Boxing Gym as boxer Bernard Hopkins, the 46-year-old legend, shared some of the tricks that have made him one of his sport's elites for two decades.

Hopkins talked to Evans about walking around with a tennis ball clutched between his chin and his neck, so that he would learn to keep his chin down and behind his left shoulder in order to provide it with the best protection from incoming blows. Evans watched with laser focus as Hopkins moved around the locker room, pointing out how to lay traps to set up punches and how best to neutralize a threat.

It was good timing for Evans, who faces a very real threat on Saturday in the main event of UFC 133, when he meets a rejuvenated Tito Ortiz in a three-round light heavyweight bout at the Wells Fargo Center.

Just five weeks ago, the mere suggestion that Ortiz might find himself in the cage facing Evans would have been cause for a mental acuity test. Ortiz went 1,729 days between wins and seemed about ready to join his peers, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture, in retirement.

Suddenly, though, a bout that was expected to be just a warm-up en route to a title shot for Evans has become extraordinarily difficult. Ortiz is finally healthy. He's showcasing another weapon in his arsenal. And, most importantly, he's bubbling over with confidence.

It was only July 2 when he stunningly saved his job by submitting Ryan Bader in the first round of their bout at UFC 132 in Las Vegas. It was his first win since Oct. 10, 2006, and kept him from getting a pink slip.

Ortiz set up the fight-ending guillotine choke by knocking down Bader with a big right hand that he and striking coach Jason Parillo jokingly call a "hooker cut."

When Phil Davis injured a knee and had to withdraw as Evans' opponent for UFC 133, the UFC offered the match to Ortiz. After taking a day to mull it over, Ortiz accepted the offer.

[Related: Ortiz, Evans still dispute outcome of first bout]

He found himself in an enviable position, playing with the house money, in essence. If he defeats Evans, he miraculously goes from the verge of being cut to possibly landing a title shot. If he loses, he's no worse off than he was after the Bader fight and he's gotten a major payday to boot.

"Tito wasn't making good decisions before," said UFC president and long-time nemesis Dana White. "But now, he's making good decisions."

Because he is, the pressure on Evans suddenly amped up. If he beats Ortiz, it's not going to do much for him because he's a heavy favorite and is expected to do well. But if he loses, it would be to a guy with one win in the last five years. It would also push a title shot against Jon Jones as much as another year away.

Still, Evans insists the pressure is the same because of the rivalry between them. The two former light heavyweight champions had a pushing-and-shoving incident while watching UFC 69 and later fought to a draw at UFC 73.

"The bare essentials of it comes down to this: Neither of us wants to lose to the other person," Evans said Thursday at the UFC 133 pre-fight news conference. "What it comes down to is, nobody wants to lose a fight and whatever happens after, happens after. But he doesn't want to get whipped by me and I don't want to get whipped by him."

White has guaranteed Evans a title shot against the winner of the UFC 135 main event between Jones and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson with a win. He wouldn't guarantee Ortiz the title shot if he were to pull his second consecutive major upset, though it would be hard to deny him.

Ortiz hasn't been healthy since 2003, when he was beaten by Couture. Since, he's battled neck and back problems and has had two extremely invasive surgeries. But now he's feeling healthy and with a return to health has come a return of confidence.

"Being healthy now? Wooooo! I feel sorry for these light heavyweights, man," Ortiz said. "It feels good to punch. It feels good to wrestle. It feels good to do jiu-jitsu, run, weight train and do everything and be at the level I want to be."

While things have been looking up for Ortiz, Evans has had a tumultuous 14 months since he's last been in the cage. He split with Greg Jackson, his long-time coach, and developed a bitter and extremely personal feud with Jones, his one-time protege.

Since defeating Jackson, Evans was the No. 1 contender. He was supposed to fight Mauricio "Shogun" Rua for the title in 2009, but when Rua got injured, Evans decided to wait for the shot instead of taking another fight.

The fight with Rua was then rescheduled for UFC 129 in March, but Evans got hurt and had to withdraw, opening the door for Jones to replace him and take the title. That also began the feud between them.

[Related: UFC 133 Y! Sports staff picks]

Evans insists some good has come of it. He's moved to Florida and begun his own MMA team, Imperial Athletics. Because half of the fighters are African American and half are Brazilian, they jokingly refer to themselves as "Blackzilians."

Evans also said he's learned to live the life of a fighter and has begun to train year-round. His coach, Mike Van Arsdale, said he thought Evans would shock fans with the improvements he's made since he last appeared in public.

"The fact he hasn't fought in a year, sometimes that can hurt people, but sometimes, it can get a person's mind in the right place," Van Arsdale said. "He's hungry. He wants to go higher than anyone has ever gone. He's dedicated himself to this sport. That's all it did, woke up a guy who was operating at about 65 percent of his capacity, winning fights but not really in shape, not really eating right and not really doing all the things he needed to do to become the best in this sport.

"Going how he was going, it wasn't like he couldn't win a world title, because he did. But he's had a re-birth, or a rededication to trying to become his best. He wasn't as good as he needed to be in no area. Absolutely not. What Rashad would do was fight, win, go on vacation for two weeks and go back home to Chicago. They'd call him for a fight and he'd show up at a camp eight weeks before a fight and train again. You have to live the life. He wasn't eating right, he wasn't getting the proper rest, he wasn't taking the right supplements and he wasn't doing any weight lifting. He wasn't wrestling and he wasn't boxing his style."

Evans used the time away to evaluate what he was doing. And while his natural talent was getting him by, he came to the realization that he was surviving on that talent and not maximizing it.

As a result, he opted to commit himself year-round to what he described as the fighter's lifestyle.

"In order to get to the next level, you have to do what other people are not doing and you have to make it a lifestyle," Evans said. "That's something I've done in the last four to five, six months. I've made it a lifestyle. I've moved down to South Florida. I still stay in Chicago, but for the most part, I'm living like a fighter. Whether I have a fight or not, I'm training. That's something I've never done before in my whole career. Living the life of a fighter is something that is new to me, but at the same time, it's helped me to become better than I was in any other camp. It's why I feel more confident than I ever have been in my life."

His championship reign, he concedes, seems like a long time ago, even though it's only been about two years. Evans, though, insists he's primed and ignoring all doubters. He's more ready, he said, than ever.

Ortiz, meanwhile, has been through a lot of ups and downs in his career, and can barely remember when he felt this good. This is a guy who headlined UFC 33 in 2001 and now is headlining UFC 133 in 2011. He has nothing to lose and everything to gain and is ready to pull off another stunner.

"I don't think anybody appreciates how hard what I've been through has truly been," Ortiz said. "You have had back pain. You know how that is. Imagine doing the workouts we do and trying to push and push and push with your back killing you. I have my health now and I'm feeling so good and so ready and so positive. If Rashad thinks he's going to see the same guy he fought in 2007, he's going to be in for a big surprise."

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