Rashad Evans knows he's not a fan favorite in the UFC. Despite his undefeated record, despite his devastating second-round knockout of Chuck Liddell at UFC 88 this past September, the fans just haven't warmed up to him. Evans is well aware of this fact. But he still doesn't understand it.
"I can never figure that out. I guess I'll never know," he said. "It's weird to me, but what can you do? You can't make people like you."
The strange part is the nature of the criticism. According to his detractors, Evans (17-0-1) is either a showboat or a boring fighter, sometimes both. Two conflicting qualities, and, yet, Evans has been unable to escape them throughout his UFC career.
The showboat angle comes in part from Matt Hughes' remarks about Evans during Season 2 of Spike TV's The Ultimate Fighter, which Evans won as a heavyweight. Displeased with Evans' antics in the Octagon, Hughes lambasted his opponent, both to the cameras and to his face. The criticism came up again after Evans' devastating knockout of Liddell, when the New York native celebrated with a perfect Fred Sanford imitation, feigning a heart attack a la Redd Foxx.
Even the most committed Evans haters had to admit that the victory was anything but boring, though he's still often criticized as a plodding wrestler and a "lay-and-pray" fighter.
"I think both of it bothered me, to be honest," Evans said of the differing criticism. "But probably what hurt me more was the showboat stuff. I mean, the 'lay-and-pray' -- that's whatever. That's just something people say when they don't like how you're winning. I knew there were some holes in my game when I started, so I had to play to my strengths."
As a former standout on the Michigan State wrestling team, Evans learned to play to his strengths: taking opponents down and controlling them on the mat. That's what accounted for most of Evans' early success in the UFC, as he opened his MMA career with three decision victories. While he admits they weren't the most thrilling fights of his career, Evans said he did what he had to do to get his hand raised.
"People don't understand sometimes," he said. "It's so hard to get a win in the UFC, you got to take it any way you can get it. You can't afford to go out there and think, 'I have to knock this guy out standing.' You do anything you can to get a win, because if you don't, you might be out of a job."
A brutal head-kick knockout against Sean Salmon in 2007 put the MMA world on notice that Evans had rounded out his skill set during his time at Greg Jackson's camp in New Mexico, where he trained alongside fellow T.U.F. 2 alum Keith Jardine. Evans' destruction of Liddell proved that it was no fluke.
But while the win over Liddell earned Evans recognition (for better or worse), it also earned him a shot at the light heavyweight title against Forrest Griffin at UFC 92 on Saturday night. The bout marks the first time in UFC history that two fighters from the organization's reality show square off with a belt on the line.
Winning the show catapulted Evans into the limelight, just as it had done for Griffin. The difference: the Season 1 winner was immediately accepted by fans.
"It become not about fighting and having fun, but dealing with all this different criticism," Evans said. "I started out enjoying myself when I fought, but after the show, there were all these expectations. Being in the second season, you look at the guys from the first, like Forrest and Stephan Bonnar and Diego Sanchez and Kenny Florian, and you see how good they're doing. I was still just starting my career and just learning and suddenly I felt like I had to live up to all of that."
Only recently has Evans regained that fun, confident feeling. The fight with Liddell was one of the first times in recent memory he could remember being truly comfortable in the Octagon. And the results speak for themselves.
Now, the 29-year-old faces a completely different challenge against Griffin, who doesn't own the punching power of Liddell, but has the will and determination unlike any other.
"He has the ability to dig down deep and keep going when things are working against him," Evans said. "A lot of people don't have that. A lot of guys are great until things get tough, and then they turn into different fighters. Forrest never quits. He's also a very smart fighter and he comes in with a good game plan and then sticks to it, which makes him a tough guy to beat."
Evans may not be Mr. Popularity in the UFC now, but if he can find a way to break down Griffin, "Sugar" will have accomplished much more than (possibly) fans' respect.
"You just can't please everyone, no matter what you do, so you shouldn't make yourself crazy trying," he said. "If I can be the champ, though, that will be enough for me."