Wagenheim: Quicker, stronger Evans shows no signs of rust

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PHILADELPHIA -- Four hundred thirty-four days is a long time to be out of work. In today's ghastly economy, a lot of people can attest to the horrors. For Rashad Evans, though, any trepidation was not over landing a job but rather landing punches, kicks and takedowns and performing all job functions at the requisite high level. In his business, rustiness can be dangerous.

But Saturday night before a strident, demanding 11,583 at the Wells Fargo Center, Evans treated the main event of UFC 133 like another day at the office.

Evans (16-1-1) was too quick, too strong, too young -- and, perhaps most surprising and significant, too calm -- for the not-quite-rejuvenated-enough Tito Ortiz (16-9-1), dominating the fight and finishing it at 4:48 of the second round to ensure that he'll finally get the light heavyweight title shot he first earned 14 months ago.

"That's a long time to stew and wonder what you're going to do the next time you're in the cage," said Evans, who earned a shot against the winner of Jon "Bones" Jones' first defense of his championship leather next month against Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. "I hadn't fought in so long I sort of didn't feel like a fighter anymore."

The fight was a contrast in levels of oomph. The 36-year-old Ortiz must have put in a mile pacing the cage as Evans slowly made his way in from his dressing room. And even once the bout started, Rashad showed none of the nervous energy that can drain a fighter coming off a long layoff.

"I knew Tito was going to be trying to come at me early. I could kind of feel his energy," said Evans, 31. "I wanted to make sure I didn't rush into anything and took the time to set up my standup."

So he stalked Ortiz more methodically than menacingly. Even after Tito scored a takedown two minutes in, Evans was the picture of calm. He fought off of one knee for a bit, then stood and put Ortiz against the cage, where he punished him with punches and elbows. Then he grounded Tito with gusto, one of those pick-you-up-and-slam-you takedowns. Evans continued the beatdown until the horn sounded, at which point he got up and calmly walked back to his corner.

The second round was more of the same, other than the crowd-energizing spell in which Ortiz caught Evans in a guillotine. But Rashad remained tranquil, gradually freeing his neck and slickly moving into side control. It was the beginning of the end. Ortiz tried a few veteran's tricks, rolling out of bottom position briefly. But Rashad took his time -- he'd waited 14 months for this, so why not? -- and eventually landed a big knee to the solar plexus of the grounded Ortiz that prompted him to turtle up.

"It hurt," said Ortiz. "My mind was saying, 'Get up.' My body wasn't doing it."

Evans pounced on the immobilized Ortiz -- who finally had had all the fight beaten out of him -- and pounded away until referee Dan Miragliola pulled him off.

Not bad for a guy who hadn't stepped into the Octagon in over a year.

That No. 1 contenders grudge match with "Rampage" Jackson back in May 2010 seems like a lifetime ago. Yes, 434 days is an eternity. One could walk two round trips of the Appalachian Trail. One could rocket to Mars and back again. However, Rashad Evans did not take an outdoorsy stroll or leave the earth's orbit, although he did put on his hiking shoes to leave Greg Jackson's orbit. But let's not get ahead of ourselves in the chronology.

Evans reigned in the light heavy division for the first half of 2009. He knocked out Forrest Griffin for the belt two days after Christmas '08, a win that made him 13-0-1 and had him looking like the future of the sport. We all know how expectations like that can get the best of you. In his very first defense, in May 2009, "Suga" had a doubly bittersweet experience: Lyoto Machida not only took away his belt but in so doing scored a highlight-reel knockout.

But then Evans beat Thiago Silva and Rampage to regain the No. 1 contender's spot. By that point Mauricio "Shogun" Rua was wearing the belt, and the match was made. It never happened, though. Rashad waited dutifully for nine months while Shogun recovered from knee surgery, then was injured himself a few weeks before fight night. The title shot instead went to his teammate in Greg Jackson's camp, "Bones" Jones, who smashed Rua to set up what was unthinkable to the philosophical head of their gym: a fight between training partners.

Make that ex-training partners. Evans left Jackson's camp and started readying himself for Jones . . . who proceeded to pull out of their fight with an injury. At that point, Rashad knew better than to make the same mistake twice. He agreed to a fight with Phil Davis, who also ended up injured. (Is there a Curse of Rashad at play here?) When UFC president Dana White called him to run by some possible opponents for Philadelphia, Evans reportedly told him to not bother asking for approval and to just make a fight against anyone who'd step in with him.

Enter Tito Ortiz. Thirty-five days ago, "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy" was a dead man walking, entering the cage as a heavy underdog against Ryan Bader. Ortiz hadn't won a bout since 2006, while Bader had but one loss on his resume, that to the indomitable Jones. Bader was considered a younger, faster, stronger version of Tito, a sure bet to escort Ortiz out the door for good.

Instead, Tito took out Bader in less than two minutes, setting in motion a comeback story that'd be laughed out of a WWE script meeting as implausible.

The fairy tale continued until Saturday night, when Rashad Evans went back to work and took away the "happily ever after."

"I gave it my all. I fought my ass off," said Ortiz, who did indeed fight to the finish. "I take my hat off to Rashad. He was the better man."

That sentiment was echoed by UFC president Dana White, who rewarded both fighters with $70,000 bonuses for Fight of the Night. "I'm a big believer in ring rust," he said. "Well, Rashad really [expletive] up my theory tonight. If that was Rashad with rustiness, I want to see him without any rust."

A striking turnaround: For Vitor Belfort, it was a second straight highlight-reel knockout. He enjoyed this one more. His destruction of Yoshihiro Akiyama in just 1:52 -- a straight left that dropped him, then a high-octane ground assault finished the job -- got a rise out of a crowd that all night was out for blood or at least beatdowns. Belfort delivered, which helped douse the bitter memories of his KO loss to Anderson Silva via front kick to the face back in February.

Are you experienced?: Dennis Hallman came into his bout with Brian Ebersole with 59 pro fights under his belt, 43 of them wins. And he was the neophyte. Experience showed in the welterweight prelim, as Ebersole ran his record to 48-14-1 (1 NC) with a ground-and-pound TKO at 4:28 of the first round.

Youth serves notice: Rory MacDonald is 22 years old. Twenty-two! Stepping into the cage with 35-year-old tough guy Mike Pyle, who last fall knocked another young prospect, John Hathaway, down a few pegs, was supposed to be a huge challenge. It was, for a while, as Pyle escaped trouble a few times early like a veteran should. But MacDonald kept coming and coming. He put down Pyle with an aggressive attack, chased him to the ground and nailed him with a punch that led to the stoppage at 3:54 of the first. Who wants next?

Making fans: Matt Hamill got the biggest cheer of the prelims, while Alexander Gustafsson got nothing. Then the crowd started up a "USA! USA!" chant. What had the Swede done to deserve that? Other foreigners had fought Americans earlier in the evening. No matter. Gustafsson (12-1) gained some Philly fans in a hurry by dropping Hamill with a second-round uppercut, then finishing him with a vicious and precise ground attack. The TKO came at 3:34.

Finishing is fundamental: Mike Brown took down Nam Phan early in their bout, seized back control, and proceeded to nail him with around 1,000 straight punches to the face and side of the head. But as dominant as he was, he didn't complete job. So he had to contend with a feisty Phan for two more rounds, and if he hadn't pulled out the third round on the judges' scorecards he would have had nothing but a draw to show for that early beatdown. Interestingly, only one judge gave him a 10-8 first. Were the other two waiting for a beheading?

No waste of time: Chad Mendes was expected to challenge Jose Aldo for the featherweight title on this card, but the champ was injured in training. Rather than play the Rashad Evans Waiting Game, Mendes chose to fight anyway, and with that risk came the reward of a unanimous-decision victory over a tough Rani Yahya. For his trouble, Mendes now gets to wait some more, as Aldo will defend his belt against Kenny Florian in October.

Striking, anyone?:I was pretty excited for the evening's opening bout until I realized that Rafael Nadal was not fighting. Rather than the six-time French Open winner, UFC debutant Paul Bradley's opponent was Rafael NaTAL, a 12-3-1 protégé of Renzo Gracie. Natal won a close fight with his superior striking, connecting often but missing on a spinning back fist that could have been decisive. Nadal wouldn't have missed the backhand.

Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the SI.com MMA mailbag, click on the E-mail link at the top of the page.