Greg Jackson's stable of fighters is as deep and as strong as any in mixed martial arts. The veteran trainer has an eye for talent and has guided some of the finest fighters in the game.
Few, though, have impressed Jackson as much as a one-time heavyweight who has spent much of his career trying to prove he belongs.
Jackson said Rashad Evans belongs at the highest levels of mixed martial arts, and he's seen few men who can compare to the one-time Michigan State University wrestling star.
"In my eyes, Rashad Evans is one of the most talented guys I've ever seen in this business," Jackson said. "There's a lot of jealousy because of "The Ultimate Fighter" (reality show), and I'm not a fan of all the negative stuff. But Rashad is an incredibly smart, incredibly creative and incredibly gifted fighter. Him being in this main event is no fluke."
Evans faces fellow TUF alumnus Michael Bisping in the three-round light heavyweight main event of UFC 78 at the Prudential Center on Saturday in Newark, N.J. Evans is 15-0-1 and Bisping is 15-0, but the men have spent much of the buildup answering questions about their reality show roots rather than about how they compare in the octagon.
UFC president Dana White scoffs at the thought that Evans-Bisping isn't a main event type of fight and said it's the same thing he heard two months ago when he matched TUF veteran Keith Jardine against Chuck Liddell at UFC 76.
"Honestly, I get completely sick of hearing that," White said. "When I put Houston Alexander in against Keith Jardine (at UFC 71 in May), everyone kept asking me, 'Who is this guy and why would you put him against Jardine?' Then, he went out and knocked Keith Jardine out.
"Then I put Jardine in against Chuck and everyone was out again. 'Why would you put this "Ultimate Fighter" guy against someone like Chuck?' And I kept telling everyone it was a competitive fight. No one chose to believe me until Keith won that fight. And now it's starting again. Sooner or later, you have to give up on that, don't you?"
Evans would probably be 16-0 instead of 15-0-1 had he approached his July 7 match against Tito Ortiz as if he were a legitimate main event fighter instead of a reality show star stepping up to meet a main event regular.
Evans was tentative early in the fight against Ortiz and, though he controlled the second half of the bout, had to settle for an unsatisfying draw.
"There are a lot of mistakes we made before that fight," Jackson said. "We had too long of a warm-up and so many other things I don't even want to think of any more. But the bottom line is, when Rashad went out, it took him a while before he realized that fighting Tito was just like fighting any of the guys in the gym. Once he got going, he was clearly in control."
Evans expects to similarly be in control on Saturday, though this time for all three rounds. He called Bisping a "dangerous puncher" and "very slick on the ground," but said he believes he'll find a way to win.
Bisping was taken down repeatedly by Matt Hamill in his last outing, at UFC 75, and Evans is a more renowned wrestler than Hamill.
But he said he can't expect to take Bisping down at will.
"Obviously, he's a very dangerous guy and he's good pretty much anywhere the fight goes," Evans said. "I believe I'm a strong favorite, because I believe in me. I know anything can happen and when you're wearing four-ounce gloves, every fight is just one punch away from being over.
"I know that, so I won't be overconfident. I don't want to get ahead of myself. I have a game plan, but wherever the fight goes, I'm going to be ready to defeat him there."
Jackson expects Evans to win on Saturday, though he professes great respect for Bisping. How he sees Evans winning, though, is another matter.
Jackson said Evans' creativity makes him special. Jackson doesn't script a game plan for Evans like he does his other fighters. Rather, he lets Evans come up with it essentially on the fly.
"There are certain things we work on, but then I just leave it up to Rashad," Evans said. "I let his creativity take over.
"He's an incredibly intelligent, incredibly creative and incredibly perceptive guy. He has a feel for what's happening and what's going on and he can use that amazing creative element and his great athleticism to find ways to win.
"There aren't a lot of guys out there who have his athletic ability and there aren't a lot who have his mental prowess. He has a terrific combination."