The bond between a fighter and trainer is often thought to work best if monogamous. But Rashad Evans and his consortium beg to differ.
The new-school and old-school philosophies crashed head first Saturday in Atlanta when Evans met the traditionally trained Chuck Liddell. Having spent the majority of his career under the tutelage of John Hackleman, Liddell's low-handed, power-punching style has undergone few makeovers during his decade-long career.
To be fair, there wasn't much call for change. Liddell (21-6) amassed an impressive résumé by debilitating opponents with jackhammer rights and snapping lefts. Ironically, it was Liddell's repeat success that offered a road map to his undoing at UFC 88.
"It's hard to change a fighter that's been fighting and doing things so successfully for so long," said Greg Jackson, the architect of Evans' game plans. "It's hard to change in one camp. That's life-long. He was knocking the heck out of everyone. Because he's been doing it so long, we were able to figure it out and capitalize on that."
Mike Winkeljohn, a striking trainer who has worked alongside Jackson for the past 15 years in Albuquerque, said he first identified the overhand right as Liddell's kryptonite when "The Iceman" fell to Quinton Jackson in Japan in 2003.
"I noticed Liddell was plodding with his footwork a little bit," Winkeljohn said. "We were able to time his steps, and because he plods and his footwork is not that quick, I figured we could always take advantage with the speed that Rashad has."
Knockouts like that don't just come instantly. They take intense training and discipline. And with a network conceived out of Jackson's "hive" -- Trevor Whitman in Colorado, Firas Zahabi in Montreal, Phil Nurse in New York and the crew in New Mexico -- Evans and other top fighters in the Jackson camp have an opportunity to cherry pick what works best for them.
Jackson has operated under the philosophy that different trainers -- primarily specialists in their respective fields -- should work to improve individual areas of a fighter's game. Like others in the camp, including Georges St. Pierre, NateMarquardt and Keith Jardine, Evans has flourished under the potluck-style training.
"We just have so much depth [with] people you can go out there and train with, and I think that's what makes you better," said Evans, the undefeated heavyweight winner from Season 2 of The Ultimate Fighter and now No. 1 light-heavyweight contender in the UFC. "[The trainers] all have their different styles, but then all their styles kind of work together."
Evans (12-0-1) came to Jackson's crew following his stint on T.U.F. as a relatively unskilled fighter. Sure, he could wrestle, but he possessed very little striking or submission knowledge. Quite a lot has changed in less than three years.
"He's a quick learner," Winkeljohn said. "He's got a lot of natural snap in his punches, a lot of speed. He's got very strong legs and now he's using his legs in his punches. His power is coming way up."
Both Jackson and Winkeljohn equated Evans to a young Mike Tyson, and considering the native New Yorker's stout frame, it's a comparison that can be made from appearances alone. Evans, however, seems much more deliberate than "Iron Mike."
Early on, Evans earned a reputation for going the distance, but his power also manifested in three brutal knockouts inside the UFC: a ground-and-pound stoppage of Jason Lambert in Sept. 2006; a head-kick KO of Sean Salmon in Jan. 2007; and the recent overhand right against Liddell.
Saturday's finish started slow enough, and the crowd wasn't having it as boos reverberated throughout Philips Arena. More than simply goading Liddell into moving forward, Evans' slow start was a way for him to gain comfort and confidence in handling a fighter of Liddell's experience. The opening period allowed Evans to find his range, and once he confirmed to Jackson and Winkeljohn that he felt fine in front of the 38-year-old former champ, the trainers asked him to go after a veteran whom they believed had made little adjustment since losing to Jardine late last year.
Said Jackson: "Mike Winkeljohn was telling Rashad since the very beginning of the game planning that he was going to catch Chuck with an overhand right."