Evans defies expectations

Kevin Iole

LAS VEGAS – Sports fans in Philadelphia once booed Santa Claus, so I guess just about anyone is fair game.

But the disdain, and often hatred, that Ultimate Fighting Championship fans have displayed toward Rashad Evans has been beyond perplexing.

Evans is the kind of guy who fights anyone, who wins most, brings an exciting style, is honest, forthright and accessible.

And, oh yeah, he probably helps little old ladies cross the street and buys Girl Scout cookies from all of his neighbors.

Rashad Evans

Rashad Evans took his coaching duties seriously and won over fans.
(Eric Jamison/AP)

Yet, on the night of his biggest win, when he knocked out Chuck Liddell at UFC 88 in Atlanta, Evans was cascaded with boos. When he won the light heavyweight championship by stopping Forrest Griffin at UFC 92, he was greeted by catcalls.

That's what made the scene in the lobby of the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino so stunning on Tuesday. Evans arrived in the hotel as the official kickoff of public events for UFC 108 Saturday in the Grand Garden Arena and was greeted as a conquering hero.

"Anybody who thinks Rashad is not a star wasn't in the lobby of the MGM [on Tuesday]," UFC president Dana White said.

Evans might even be the good guy for a change when he walks into the cage to meet Thiago Silva in Saturday's main event. Evans' stint as a coach on Season 10 of "The Ultimate Fighter," the UFC's reality series on Spike TV, dramatically changed perceptions of him.

Whereas Jackson took his coaching chores lightly, disrespected his own athletes and generally only tried for cheap laughs, Evans took his duties seriously. He actually, shock of all shocks, tried to coach the fighters who were attempting to use the reality show as a way to launch their careers.

Evans was patient and understanding and seemed to genuinely care about his fighters and their careers. Jackson came across mostly caring about where to get lunch.

That distinction has altered the perception of Evans, who raised the ire of many fans when he celebrated his win over Liddell by feigning Fred Sanford's heart attack gimmick.

"I think the show helped change the perception of me a whole lot, because people didn't really know me and they only knew of me what they saw when I went out there and fought," Evans said. "When I fight, I kind of morph into a different character altogether. The person you see talking to you here now is not the same person who is not going to fight on Saturday.

"I have to change a little bit and sometimes, I bring a little swagger with me. When people who don't really know me see that swagger, they go, 'Aw, man, he's just a cocky [expletive].' They form their opinions of you in that few minutes you're in the cage. The show I think helped me because it allowed people to see me being me."

Evans was slated to fight Jackson at UFC 107 in Memphis, Tenn., but Jackson pulled out so he could take a movie role. As a result, the UFC pitted Evans with Silva, who in his last outing defeated Evans' close friend and training partner, Keith Jardine.

Evans has been inundated with questions about Jackson, since Jackson is among the handful of the most popular fighters in the world, and has gotten few questions about Silva.

That has led to the perception in some quarters that Evans is looking past Silva. Jackson has agreed to return and White said he'll fight again sometime in either March or April. White said Evans will have to defeat Silva in order to get land a shot at Jackson, but Evans is hardly concerned about that now.

"If a reporter asks me a question about Rampage and I answer it, how does that translate into me looking past Thiago?" Evans asked. "I guess the way I'd look at it is, maybe the reporter who is asking me about Rampage instead of Thiago is the one looking past Thiago. But it ain't me looking past him, I can honestly tell you that.

"This guy is a real fighter. I know how good of a fighter Keith is and he beat Keith. That's all I have to know. You can't be a bum and beat Keith Jardine. I totally understand what I have in front of me."

The fight will be Evans' first since he surrendered the title to Machida at UFC 98 in May, when he was viciously knocked out in the second round. Sometimes, when a fighter gets knocked out, he becomes increasingly more vulnerable to knockouts.

Evans, though, is not concerned, though he is aware of Silva's lethal striking capability.

The problem with many fighters, Evans said, is that they are too reckless in sparring and sustain damage the public isn't aware of. Getting knocked out repeatedly in sparring essentially increases the size of the target, or as he calls it, "the button," on a fighter's chin.

Evans has been smart and so has no concern about his chin failing him.

"What it comes down to is taking care of yourself in training," Evans said. "A lot of people see the shot that night that knocks you out, but they don't see the gym, a week before the fight, two weeks before the fight, where you damn near got knocked out in practice. Every single time you almost get knocked out, that's a little concussion there.

"If you don't take care of yourself and take some time off from sparring and not have too much pride and say, 'I'm going to spar 15 rounds today; it doesn't matter how many times I get rocked,' then you're making it easier for that button [on the chin] to get bigger in the fight. With proper time off … and just taking care of your body helps diminish the fact you might have a big button on your chin."