Few pegged Evans' main-event status

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ATLANTA – On Rich Franklin's first day as a coach on Season 2 of "The Ultimate Fighter," he looked at Rashad Evans and immediately had a candidate to name the weakest link.

But a couple of days later, Franklin saw something during a workout from the one-time Michigan State University wrestler that convinced him that Evans was better than his first impression.

And so, when the former UFC middleweight champion and fellow coach Matt Hughes were divvying up the teams, Franklin tabbed Evans, causing Hughes to shoot him a sideways glance in surprise, for Hughes had also viewed Evans skeptically.

Three years later, Evans (11-0-1) has made Franklin look good as a talent evaluator. He's one of the few main-event fighters on the UFC roster with no losses and will meet Chuck Liddell (21-5) on Saturday at Philips Arena in a key light heavyweight bout at UFC 88.

Fighting Liddell in a UFC main event is like playing the final round with Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open. It doesn't get any bigger.

"Rashad has really made himself into a quality fighter," said Franklin, who faces Matt Hamill on Saturday.

Evans is a different fighter from the one who fought Tito Ortiz to a draw in Sacramento, Calif., at UFC 73 on July 7, 2007.

Prior to that fight, a different side of the normally soft-spoken Evans emerged. He was trash talking throughout the promotion and got nose-to-nose with Ortiz at the final pre-fight news conference.

While it made good theater, it was out of character for Evans. Whether it made him change his fight plan, he's not saying, but he concedes he wound up falling for Ortiz's tactics.

"I got caught up in all the b.s. and that's just not me," Evans said. "It was a mistake for me to do that. Tito was out there talking and doing his thing, as he usually does, and I felt like I had to match it."

Ortiz won two of the three rounds on all three scorecards, but the fight was a draw because Ortiz was docked a point in the second round for grabbing the cage repeatedly.

That, Evans coach Greg Jackson said, was probably the most significant factor in the outcome of the bout. Jackson, who believes Evans should have won the fight anyway, said things would have been different had Ortiz not grabbed the cage to prevent being taken down.

"It wasn't just one time that he did it," Jackson said. "The whole fight changed because of that. If Rashad takes him down, we wouldn't be standing here today talking about the decision, believe me."

Getting Liddell to the floor may be just as difficult for Evans, though one can be reasonably certain that Liddell won't hang onto the cage.

Liddell's takedown defense is legendary, so good that nearly every one of his fights is a stand-up slugfest where he can take advantage of his extraordinary one-punch power.

"Getting Chuck off his feet is never an easy task," Jackson conceded.

Evans' game plan likely isn't based solely upon putting Liddell on his back. That's like a pitcher deciding to try to blow fastballs past Albert Pujols all day.

Making Liddell think, and not allowing him to stand and trade, is probably one of the keys for Evans.

"Honestly, I think the most significant thing for me to do is to impose my will on Chuck," Evans said. "I have to keep him guessing. I have to go out there and not try to do too much and just do what I normally do in practice."

Evans, though, is hardly a one-dimensional fighter. He earned the nickname "Sugar Rashad" from training partner Mike Whitehead, who dubbed him that because he said Evans was boxing like the great Sugar Ray Robinson one day in practice.

That's high praise to be compared to Robinson, the finest boxer who ever lived. But Jackson said Evans' striking skills have progressed rapidly and are not appreciated by enough people.

He has become one of the game's most complete fighters while working with Jackson and doesn't have a discernible weakness.

"I think he's had an overall improvement and he's gotten better in all aspects of his game," Jackson said. "He showed the improvement in different aspects in different fights. His ground ability against Jason Lambert, his knockout and kickboxing improvement against Sean Salmon, and to me, even though a lot of people didn't think it was a great fight, he showed a lot in his ability to work through pain in that fight with (Michael) Bisping.

"He hit a wall and really had to push himself through it. He's improved mentally and with his technique, as well. Rashad has a lot of ways to win fights, which is why he is so dangerous."

And though Liddell is hounded by questions about fighting for the title, he has tortured his body to get ready for the Evans challenge.

In his last outing, a dramatic win over Wanderlei Silva, Liddell was fairly certain that Silva wasn't going to do anything but stand and trade. He's not sure what to expect from Evans.

"The more ways a guy has to win, the more dangerous he is," Liddell said. "It's a mistake to think he's just a wrestler. He's got a lot of skills and I'm going in there expecting a real difficult fight. I'd be fooling myself to expect anything else."