Jon Jones blames Rashad Evans for the way things turned out. Evans blames Jones and former trainer Greg Jackson. And Jackson? Jackson blames himself.
Maybe they're all right. Maybe it doesn't matter anymore. Either way, they're going to fight for the UFC light heavyweight title on April 21 in Atlanta, and either way, they'll probably spend the next three weeks disagreeing over how, exactly, this came to pass.
"It did seem pretty inevitable, but it was just me being stubborn and not seeing the reality of the situation." said Jackson, who, at one point, trained both fighters side-by-side in his Albuquerque, N.M., gym.
"I don't think it had to happen," said Evans, who declared himself "done" with Jackson's gym after accepting the bout with his former teammate.
"I don't regret anything that's happened," said Jones, who became the youngest champ in UFC history after stepping up to take the title shot that was originally promised to Evans.
So much gets altered in the retelling. The story gets molded and shaped and slapped around until everybody's had their hands on it and nobody remembers exactly what it looked like when they first started. Nobody's lying, and yet nobody agrees completely with anyone else's version of events. That's how it goes when relationships fall apart and feelings get hurt. Your memories get filtered through your perceptions. What you experienced then gets colored by what you know now. Will you ever find out where your truth intersects with the capital-letter Truth, and where it diverges from it? Do you really need to?
There is one thing they all agree on: Evans was there first. Evans was one of the fighters who helped put Jackson's gym on the map -- part of what Evans refers to as "the Jackson Five," which included himself, Diego Sanchez, Joey Villasenor, Nate Marquardt and Keith Jardine.
"To be honest, you really wouldn't know who Greg Jackson was if it wasn't for the original Jackson Five," Evans said. "He'd just be a guy in Albuquerque who had an idea about fighting. We're the ones who really put him on the map."
And that's true, to some extent. The success that the original core of fighters had at the top levels of the sport helped attract new talent to Jackson's gym. That's where Jones comes in. He was just an exciting young talent from a small gym in upstate New York when he struck up a conversation with Jackson backstage at a UFC event. He found his way onto the team shortly thereafter, which was the beginning of the end, according to Evans.
They all thought they could pull it off. Even if they had two fighters at or near the top of the UFC's 205-pound division, they thought they could avoid any teammate-on-teammate violence by playing it smart, just like they had done in the past. Before Jones had ever slipped on a pair of MMA gloves, Evans had been through this with Jardine. There was that night back in 2007, when UFC president Dana White confidently told reporters that if he demanded an Evans-Jardine bout, the fighters would follow through on it.
"No, I won't," Evans countered, and they didn't.
"Dana White's a promoter, so he's going to say those things," Evans said. "He did that to me and Keith before. And he didn't push it. He'd just make those comments here and there. That's what he's supposed to do. He's the promoter, so he tries to make the fights the fans want to see."
Shortly after Jones joined the team, Evans decided that his younger counterpart needed a lesson in this particular brand of MMA diplomacy. So he pulled him aside and gave him a little advice, he said.
"I just told him to be careful what he said. If you don't want to fight me, then don't even entertain the idea. Don't even let it go there. Sometimes people would ask me, when I would train with Keith, who would win if we fought. I'd say, 'Keith will.' And then people would ask Keith the same thing and he'd say, 'Rashad will win.' That defused the whole situation, because then there was no going back and telling the hot secret about what you guys said. That's a humbling thing you have to do."
But Jones didn't do it, according to Evans. Instead, he gave an interview to Ariel Helwani on a Versus pre-fight show wherein he suggested that maybe, if it was between fighting Evans and getting fired from the UFC, he'd enter into unarmed combat with his teammate.
"I just would hate to have to fight my own teammate," he concluded. "I would never want to."
He probably didn't know it at the time, but he'd already crossed the Rubicon. He had accepted the premise of the question. He had -- just as Evans had warned him not to -- entertained the idea. So Evans took to ESPN and declared he was "no punk," and just like that, the wheels were in motion.
But to Jones, it was Evans who broke the pact. He did it out of raw ambition, and he did it because he "did not want to cut down to 185 [pounds]" to fight for a title.
"I think Rashad took my interview -- me saying I'd never want to have to fight him -- and he used that to give himself a reason to challenge me for the belt," Jones said. "Our agreement was to not fight each other on any accord, by any means. The only thing I said was I would never want to fight my teammate, and the only way it was possible was if I was absolutely going to lose my job over it. That's a pretty major extreme. But he took that and found a reason to challenge me for the belt, which totally disrespected everything we stood for, everything our team stood for, everything that me and Rashad agreed to."
When the split happened, Evans moved his fight camp all the way to Florida, where he now trains with the "Blackzilians" squad in Boca Raton. The team he has there is "what Jackson's used to be," he said. That is, before it became "transient and commercial." Back when it was still a team. Back before Jones came in and everything changed.
"He's right in some sense," said Jackson. "Some things have changed, but change isn't always bad. The things about us that were always good are, I feel, still there. Our camaraderie, our unity, our 'all for one, one for all' attitude -- that's all still there."
And the team that Evans remembers? The original "Jackson Five"? It left out a lot of people, and intentionally so, according to Jones.
"There were people at Greg Jackson's gym that he never even said 'hi' to," Jones said. "I'm a guy who, when I'm with the team, I take everyone out to dinner. I take the kids who have no money out to dinner. The kids who fly in from Japan or Russia to train, the kids who can't speak English, I take them out to eat. The kids who came here to get sober and try to get off drugs, I help them out. Those are the kids I hang out with, the team. He hung out with the elites. When he says the team wasn't what it used to be, he doesn't know what he's talking about. He truly never got to know the team."
As Evans prepares for the fight in Boca Raton, Jones is in Albuquerque, working with the coaches who, as he put it, "taught [Evans] how to fight."
"He always talks down about Greg Jackson now and he always talks crap about our team by saying our team was just commercial and we're overrated," Jones said. "But all those insults have really made it almost personal for our coaches. We know his psychology. We know what makes him tired. We know everything about him. He's in trouble."
Jackson's initial plan was to stay out of it altogether. If two of his fighters insisted on facing one another -- and even if one of them had renounced him -- he wanted nothing to do with it, he said. Then he got to thinking about it. Didn't he have a duty to help out the person who was still there? Wasn't that part of being a team, even if he hated the idea of breaking down a friend the way he had broken down so many opponents?
"It feels weird to do it," he said. "I hate the whole process, hate every minute of it. But it's not like I take anything personal about Rashad and make it part of the game plan. I'm just strictly looking at it ... as business. But it still sucks."
And what about when it's over? When the smack has all been talked. When the blood has been bled and one of them loses so that the other can win, what's supposed to happen then? If you can't even agree on how it started, can you find some way to put it behind you? Can you go back to being friends, inasmuch as you ever were friends? Can you at least be friendly?
"I hope so," Jackson said. "I hope we still have a relationship after [the fight]. I hope we become friends again."
"I think there will be some mutual respect afterward on some levels, of course," Evans said. "But I don't think we'll ever be calling each other up, acting like homeboys. I think there will always be distrust."
"It was great training together," Jones said. "He learned a lot from me and I learned a lot from him. Now we're here and we get to challenge ourselves."