Rashad Evans might be nicknamed Sugar. But over the past year, it's as if he's been stuck to the inside of the shaker. After beating Rampage Jackson at UFC 114 in the spring of 2010, Jackson, a former light heavyweight champ, has been a cipher. He's gotten hurt and pulled out of fights. Opponents have gotten hurt and pulled out of fights. A bout against Shogun Rua was scrapped, as was a rematch against Lyoto Machida, as was a fight against promising Phil Davis. Evans was reluctant to face former stablemate, Jon Jones. Now he wants nothing more than to fight Jones. He left a gym in New Mexico and decamped to Florida.
Finally, after 14-month absence, Evans, 32, gets back in the Octagon on Saturday night (9 p.m. ET, PPV). In the headline bout of UFC 133 in Philadelphia, he fights Tito Ortiz, a rematch of their unsatisfying 2007 draw. He took a break from training last week to speak with SI.com.
SI.com: It's been an interesting past year or so. Emotionally, where are you right now?
Rashad Evans: It's been tough mentally. Being a fighter becomes who you are. Every few months, there's a mental journey. That's what I was used to, the rhythms of fighting. Having a year off was too much. I missed that part of my life and I was depressed, man. Yeah, I had a little depression going on. I didn't want to do anything, I was losing my motivation. Having fights fall through, it was tough.
SI.com: How did you get your head right?
Evans: Mostly leaning on friends, people who believe in me, my manager.
SI.com: So how were you when they told you that Tito was your next opponent?
Evans: I was pleasantly surprised. It was going to be [Lyoto] Machida because he beat me before and I was thinking, "OK, time for redemption." When that didn't happen I was like, "Damn." But Tito stepped up. I thought he'd be the last person, but he did."
SI.com: So what are you expecting Saturday?
Evans: A Tito Ortiz who's hard core, putting me in positions that make me uncomfortable ... We fought before. We got into some bad blood. We were going back and forth. It was my first time on that stage, so it was all new to me and he was teaching me the ropes of talking trash. We didn't like each other. Since then, I've seen him out, we worked together on MMA Live and he seemed pretty cool.
SI.com: I was just telling someone that I feel like MMA is a virus that keeps mutating. Where do you see the sport right now?
Evans: Back in the day, the hardworking guy who didn't have much athletic ability could still do OK being hard-nosed. Now, the sport is more athletic. Hard work isn't good enough. Athleticism is playing a huge part Guys with natural gifts who know how to work hard, too. You see a guy like Matt Hughes; he wouldn't survive in today's UFC. I mean he's going OK, but that nose-to-the-grindstone isn't enough ...You need skill and will now.
SI.com: Jon Jones is 6-4 and can't dunk a basketball. Are you an athlete, conventional terms?
Evans: Yeah, I was talking to Jevon Kearse and he was saying, 'An athlete is someone who can pick up any sport. He may not do it well at first, but he'll get good fast.' I think I'm there.
SI.com: Can you dunk, at barely six feet?
Evans: A little ball. I got these little baby hands, though, dinky fingers causes the problem because I can't palm.
SI.com: Where is this sport in the consciousness of the African-American community?
Evans: It's starting to catch. I went to New York, walking around the Bronx like five years ago, and no one knew me. Now I get recognized a lot in the black community. Season 10 of the Ultimate Fighter, with me and Rampage [Jackson,] helped. But it's still not where it can be.
SI.com: Is that cultural? Maybe wrestling tending to be more rural than urban?
Evans: I wouldn't say cultural. I think it's just not marketed toward the African-American community. That's what I think it is. They market to the Hispanic community. I don't think it's on purpose. Maybe they just don't know how to [hit] that demographic. I don't know.
SI.com: I think a lot of people see this as a set-up fight to Jon Jones. We all know the narrative, the falling out between you, the obvious storyline. Is that how you see it, too?
Evans: On the one hand, you want to focus on the present. But it's also important to keep your eyes on the prize, and Jon has the prize, so I got my eye on him. I want to show the world I'm the best, and he's standing in my way. I definitely want to go in there and smash him. I don't like him.
SI.com: I heard that somewhere. Seriously, do you like fighting someone where there's that animosity? Or does the emotion become an extra burden?
Evans: No, not when you know how to handle it. I like to fight a guy I don't like. At one point, I liked him as a person but I know how fake he is and there's no point. Once you know how fake someone is, why engage? You know what you get when you deal with him in a relationship.
SI.com: Who's your best friend in the sport?
Evans: I have a lot of good friends. But I'll probably say Keith Jardine.
SI.com: What's this week before a fight like?
Evans: It's more mental. You want to get your training in but you've put in the hard work. It's more believing, believing, believing, believing. I need to execute the way I do in practice. I do a lot of visualization. I have my sports psych [Dr. Al Fuentes from Arizona] come out and every night, before I go to sleep, I talk with him and unload, telling him what's on my mind. It's like my diary. We do the breathing exercises, the visualization and it relaxes me. I talk about everything and I go to sleep with a clear conscience.
SI.com: What's your biggest fear?
Evans: You always think about the what-ifs? What if I get caught with a punch a submission? But the biggest fear is not executing the way I can. Not what he can do, but what I don't do. "What if I go out there and don't fight the way I want to fight?" That's on me. I've seen some the of the best fighters talk themselves out of fights because they were nervous or couldn't get their mind on what they needed to do... They key is feeling free. You have to say 'If I lose, f--- it..' You have to be willing to lose, to win. This my job, though. I need to put in my time at the office. Tough fights happen, you know?
SI.com: You gotta grind out a decision, you grind out a decision?
Evans: Yeah, but you know what? Honestly, I rather get the fight done early. Get my money and not get banged up!