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Rashad Evans sets sights on former training partner Jon Jones

Rashad Evans.
(UFC)

In Aug. 2009, Rashad Evans faced an important decision. Evans was the top 205-pound fighter at Jackson’s MMA, widely considered the top training camp in MMA. He had lost the UFC light-heavyweight title in his previous fight and was on a quest to regain his perch as the top fighter in the sport. It was at that point he was approached by Coach Greg Jackson with a proposition: An elite light-heavyweight prospect by the name of Jon Jones wanted to join the team and Jackson sought out Evans’ blessing.

In every sport, athletes end up competing against friends and former teammates. But there is an added gravity when the goal is to punch that friend in the face. UFC fighters generally don’t want to fight friends, but know pressure may come from the company to do so if both fighters rise to the top of the sport. Jones was a potential future rival for Evans, but Evans elected to welcome Jones into the fold of a camp that had guided Evans’ career since 2005. As part of the decision, each man vowed that he would never fight the other. This would end up being one of the most consequential decisions of Evans’ career, ultimately setting the stage for one of the biggest UFC grudge matches in years.

The relationship between Evans and Jones initially developed well. They became friends and would train together each day. Their careers thrived and neither fighter has suffered a true loss since that point (Jones was controversially disqualified for illegal elbows in a fight against Matt Hamill he dominated from beginning to end). But as they continued to win, UFC President Dana White made clear that he expected the two to fight when the time was right.

Evans was first in line for a title shot against then-champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua last February, but suffered an injury prior to the contest. Jones received the title shot with Evans’ blessing. Evans predicted Jones would win and floated the idea that he might switch divisions to avoid a collision with Jones.

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Evans and Jones continued to insist they wouldn’t fight, until a month later when Jones unexpectedly switched course and said he would be willing to face Evans. That angered Evans, and he left his longtime training camp at Jackson’s MMA a few weeks later. In the interim, Jones defeated Rua for the UFC light-heavyweight title. Friendship dissolved, Jones and Evans were now on a collision course.

A lot has changed since Evans made the fateful decision to acquiesce to Jones joining his training camp. Jones now has Evans’ training camp, his coach, his title shot and the title Evans once held. Given that reality, it’s unsurprising that the war of words between the two has quickly grown heated. Jones has accused Evans of jealousy and inadequacy, while Evans has labeled Jones fake and argued Jones’ public persona does not match his true personality.

“He’s not real,” Evans told The Times. “Everything about him. I’m not going to put it all out there. But in time, people will see the real Jon Jones. Whatever you do in the dark will come to light. There’s no reason for me to get into everything, but sooner or later we’ll know.

Trash talking an opponent is nothing new for Evans, who has used his words throughout his career to try to get in the head of competitors. It has helped to promote fights, but Evans says he has done so specifically to gain a number of tactical advantages when the time comes for the fight.

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“When I have to fight somebody, to be honest I want them to know I’m better than them,” Evans said. “If that sounds cocky, fine. In the cage is no place to second guess yourself or make your opponent think you are second guessing yourself. What fans don’t understand is that it’s not all about entertainment. You’ve got to fight and the fight starts before the fight. I have to win. You have to have that talk out there to make sure you’re on point and to validate the solid points in your mind that you can’t deviate from. You’ve even got to be a little delusional.”

Many of those who have followed the career of Jon Jones feel an opponent would have to be a little delusional to think they can beat Jones. Jones is a 5-1 favorite against Evans, following a year in which he finished all four opponents, including three UFC champions (Mauricio Rua, Quinton Jackson and Lyoto Machida).

What makes Jones even more difficult to deal with is his continued evolution as a fighter. Jones is just 24 years old and every fight seems to add new wrinkles to his game. An excellent wrestler, Jones has utilized his exceptional reach in the striking game and submitted high level opposition as well. Evans feels that past opponents have been put into a trance by the fluid motion and athletic ability of Jones.

“I think what happened to them is that they got caught watching him,” Evans said. “He’s so flashy with his moves. They got caught trying to avoid getting caught. It’s a head trick that I can’t fall for.”

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To defeat Jones, the perpetually underestimated Evans has a number of tools. Evans is one of the best wrestlers in his division and has taken down every opponent he has attempted a takedown on. Evans holds more career takedowns than any other light heavyweight in UFC history. Evans showcased that wrestling ability in his last fight by handily defeating former NCAA Division I wrestling champion Phil Davis.

“I was happy with my performance in that fight,” Evans said. “He’s a solid wrestler and I shut him down in his game. I told him I was going to beat him in the wrestling. He said [dismissively], ‘No, no, no!’ That was his downfall. When he said that, I knew he had made a mistake. And I got him.”

While Evans does have great wrestling, Jones has looked every bit as impressive in the wrestling game throughout his young MMA career. Jones is even more proficient in takedown accuracy on a percentage basis than Evans. Jones leads the light-heavyweight division by completing 63.6% of takedown attempts, with Evans is second at 53.3%. Jones’ defensive wrestling is likewise strong, as Jones has never been taken down in UFC competition.

The other tool Evans has frequently used to win in MMA is his striking. Over time, Evans has relied more and more on his standup. He has some spectacular knockouts to his credit, including an all-time highlight reel knockout of Chuck Liddell in Atlanta, the site of his bout with Jones. While Jones relies on a wider array of strikes to the head and body, Evans is a head hunter with power. 84.4% of Evans’ strikes attack the head, compared to only 53% for Jones.

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In order to successfully land strikes on Jones, Evans needs to get inside. That has proved to be a tricky task against the long and athletic UFC champion. Evans insists it’s a task he is up to.

“I’ve fought fighters with long reach like that,” Evans said. “Brad Imes was a big dude with a huge reach. I got around it in the past and I will do it again. The thing people don’t understand is reach has to do with timing. If you have great timing you can avoid the reach. Mike Tyson was never taller than anyone but he had good timing to get inside.”

Saturday night, Evans will have a golden opportunity. He can avenge a personal issue, regain his spot as the best light heavyweight in the sport, and score the signature win of his career. Jon Jones will make it anything but easy. Evans, however, knows better than most how a small sequence of events can alter the trajectory of a life. Motivation levels will be at their highest for a fight of paramount importance to the former friends.

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Follow Todd Martin on Twitter at @toddmartinmma.


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