Rashad Evans is a terrific and honest interview, which makes it strange that his fights are so often promoted as morality plays, with him in the role of a villain. In his most famous bouts -- the 2008 fights that marked the end of Chuck Liddell's time as an elite light heavyweight and the end of Forrest Griffin's reign as 205-pound champion, and last year's grudge match with Quinton "Rampage" Jackson -- the public was down on him, waiting for their heroes to shut him up. It didn't happen.
This weekend in Philadelphia, at UFC 133, Evans will be the bad guy yet again. In his first fight in more than a year, he'll tie up with Tito Ortiz, an all-time great who submitted Ryan Bader last month and then accepted the fight with Evans on short notice, ending a long, bad run that had him one loss away from the end of his UFC career and making himself a folk hero. The public, loving second chances as it does, will be pulling for Ortiz to put Evans down. They'll most likely be disappointed.
Making this more intriguing is that Ortiz is, along with Lyoto Machida, one of two men to ever better Evans in the Octagon. (They fought to a draw in 2007, but Ortiz would have won if he hadn't taken a dubious point deduction for holding on to the cage.) To the public, this fight is about Evans trying to prevent a legend from making an impossible comeback. To Evans, it's about ending a long, bizarre stretch that's seen him go from a scheduled and serially delayed title fight against Mauricio Rua to an abrupt break with longtime trainer Greg Jackson over a title fight with new champion and former training partner Jon Jones to a fight with prospect Phil Davis to a rematch with Machida to one with Ortiz.
If that's confusing, think of it like this: Evans hasn't fought in more than a year, has lost two scheduled title shots, and has had to agree to fight five different opponents, all due to one injury he sustained in training, two injuries to others, and one failed contract negotiation. That's a run of bad fortune, little of it his own, that could drive any man to fits.
"It was stressful," he said over the phone recently of the few hours that saw his opponent change from Davis to Machida to Ortiz. "I trained so hard, and I've been out for so long, that I didn't want to take the chance of not fighting anybody at all."
A lot of critics -- and this includes everyone from commenters on popular fighting websites like Bloody Elbow to fight pundits to UFC officials -- blame Evans' long absence from the cage on him. Once it became clear that Rua would be out for a long time with a knee injury, they say, Evans, rather than hanging on to his promised title shot, should have just taken another fight. He thinks this is nonsense.
"Take a look at the guys who've fought when they were supposed to have a title shot," he said. "Let's take Anthony Pettis, and the guy that was supposed to fight Jose Aldo. Both those guys took a fight before they were supposed to have a title shot, and they both lost.
"Great to the fans, granted -- 'Wow, the guy's tough, he went out there and had a fight when he had a title shot!' Kudos to him. But at the same time, you've got to understand. This is a job. You've got to get that money. You've got to find a way to get up that ladder. And you've got to be smart about the fights you take and when you take them.
"There's two sides, look at it. One side is that, yeah, I'm a fighter, I'll fight anybody. I'll whup anybody. But there's another side to it that's a business side, and if you're not thinking about the business side, then you're really missing the big picture when it comes down to it. Because you only have so many fights in you."
If Evans has come in for a lot of criticism for turning down fights over the last year, that's partly because he's done so in the past. After a highly anticipated 2009 fight with Jackson was delayed so that Jackson could take a role in The A-Team movie, for example, Evans declined a bout with Randy Couture.
"You can criticize somebody for turning down a fight," he said. "But then at the same time, every fight doesn't necessarily make sense when it comes to the bigger picture. Where do I see myself? With the fight with Randy Couture, yeah, I would've fought Randy Couture, but I was already promised a fight with Rampage, which would have been a bigger fight, more money, and put me in contention to have a title. Whereas with Randy, it did nothing for me at all.
"It's all about the positioning of it, and if you allow yourself to fight off the basis of trying to be the tough guy, then you're going to sell yourself short. Because you know what? You will be tough, many times you will rise to the occasion, you will win many fights, but there's that chance. And that chance gets bigger, the more risk you take. Yeah, I'm the toughest guy or whatever, but you never know what can happen. So why not take the fights that make sense to take? Why not take the risks that make sense to risk? I'm the one putting my body on the line to do this, so why can't I get what I need to get out of it?"
This blunt willingness to speak about the logic that drives a lot of the decisions fighters make, logic most fighters usually prefer not to talk about, is part of what gets fans to trick themselves into seeing Evans as a bad guy. That they do so isn't anything that gets him exercised.
"Fans really don't understand it, because they're the fans," he said. "We're people too, and we've got to make smart choices for ourselves, our families and our careers. And that doesn't necessarily always go with the fan's favorite opinion on what somebody should do. Because the fans are just looking at it from a pure entertainment aspect."
Is that a problem?
"It's not a problem," Evans said. "I have to overcome the same dynamic in myself. Sometimes I get a fight offered to me and in myself, I'm like, 'Yeah, I'll smash that dude.' That's the fighter side talking to me. But then the business side comes over and says, 'What does it mean to do this fight? Where does this fight get you?' I got to where I am right now not because I'm the biggest, or the fastest, or the hardest punching. I've positioned myself to be in the right place. I don't always go on fights because I want to prove how tough I am. I love to fight, it's my passion to do, but at the same time I make the smart business choices for myself. Because if I don't, who else will?"
Fighting might be a better sport, overall, if more of Evans' peers asked that question. As he'll point out, though, looking out for yourself, especially if you happen not to be one of the top two or three light heavyweights in the world and a proven box office draw, can be nearly impossible. The ferocity of competition in fighting right now is producing a new kind of athlete, astonishingly fit and with brilliant technique. It's also producing cards like UFC 133, where half the fights have had to be changed or scrapped outright because of injuries incurred in training.
"You've got to fight to keep your job these days," said Evans. "Pretty hard with all the competition, and with UFC acquiring Strikeforce. You can be replaced at the drop of a dime. So you've got to be out there producing. And guys are training harder, guys are training longer, guys are taking training to another level now.
"Definitely, guys are training harder than we used to, because we have to. We don't train hard like that and our opponent is, we could be out of a job. We could find out we're getting fired on Twitter."
Evans' own training, he says, has gone well -- having moved on from Jackson's MMA, he's been working with Mike Van Arsdale in Florida -- and didn't change much, even with the sudden switch in opponents. Davis is a tough wrestler with a slightly dodgy stand up game, and that description basically fits Ortiz, whose nearly unrivaled experience more or less balances out against Davis' incredible athleticism in Evans' view. Either way, he's confident, especially since he isn't the same fighter Ortiz saw in 2007.
"I just got a lot better," he said of what's happened over the last four years. "Got more seasoned to the game, got bigger, stronger, faster, better looking. Everything.
"Before, I was like, 'Tito Ortiz is the man!' He's a legend in the sport, but a lot has changed since then."
If Evans beats Ortiz, which he should, he'll almost certainly be in line for the next shot at the light heavyweight championship after Jackson fights Jones in September. Given that Evans is uniquely well suited to call that fight, it's interesting that he gives Jackson essentially no chance at all, and has detailed reasons for so doing.
"Listen, Rampage is a bunch of untapped potential," he said. "He showed sparks of great potential in the Pride days, and I don't even think he was as good as he could have been even in the Pride days. But the thing about it is, now, Rampage has gotten lazy. He's gotten lazy, and he's gotten comfortable. He's got some money, he's got fame, and everything else like that, and he's gotten lazy, he doesn't have that same hunger. And you're going against someone like Jon Jones, who technically is a better fighter, who is younger, and who's hungrier. So how's he going to match that? His footwork is bad, his boxing is not good, and his wrestling, he got away from. So I don't see -- I really don't see how he can win this fight. I can see if he catches him with a punch, because he's got a lot of power, but that may be the only thing, if he catches him with a punch. But if he don't catch him with a punch, he's going to get finished off. Unless he makes himself a student of the game again. It would have to be a complete transformation from what I've seen from him in the last few fights. The guy who fought Matt Hamill? He won't last a round with Jon Jones.
"Rampage is good at countering. He's not really fast if he initiates a punch, but he's very fast off of the counter. But then again, Jones is so long, is he going to be able to get close enough to catch him with a counter when Jones strikes him? He has to work on his footwork. He's too flat footed. When he walks, when he's fighting, he doesn't shuffle his feet or move them. He just plods and plods and plods and plods. He moves like Frankenstein. You can't catch Jon Jones moving like Frankenstein."
Evans doesn't move like that, and barring a pair of serious upsets, he'll face Jones for the title reasonably soon in the biggest matchup UFC has on offer, one in which he'll probably be cast as the villain yet again. It likely won't bother him. There are a lot of fighters who don't understand their own business. He isn't one of them.