April 16, 2012

We've all been down this road before, haven't we?

For me, it goes back to the epic McCarthy vs. Sweeney fight. You probably haven't heard of that one because it happened around 40 years ago at my grammar school. But just like Saturday night's grudge match between Jon Jones and Rashad Evans, this memorable tussle from my youth featured two school chums suddenly at each other's throats, launching accusations that only the two of them could verify or refute. It left the whole rest of our class -- training partners, if you will -- in the uncomfortable position of choosing between friends.

If you're guessing this is my subtle way of saying that all of the back and forth that's been going on between Jones and Evans for the last year or so is a bit childish, you're right.

Fortunately, the main event of UFC 145 in Atlanta (10 p.m. ET, PPV) has more going for it. A lot more.

The fighters' background together in the Greg Jackson gym does factor in. That Evans (17-1-1) used to roll with Jones (15-1) on a regular basis suggests that, unlike other "Bones" foes, he will not be mesmerized by the sight of the UFC light heavyweight champion cartwheeling his Boeing 747 wingspan across the canvas upon entering the octagon. Rashad knows how Jones measures up. He's not going to underestimate him, but just as important, he's not going to overestimate him, either. In other words, he will not be so intimidated that he loses this fight before it begins.

UFC 145 Readers' Poll

Once the fight does start, however, Evans faces an uphill battle. Remember: All of that time together in the gym in Albuquerque taught Jones some things about Rashad, too. And Jones has strengths -- some genetic, some gym-developed -- that would seem to negate Evans'. For instance, as a striker Rashad targets an opponent's head far more than any other part of the body, but Jones' five-inch height advantage will make that a more difficult plan of attack to execute. And while Evans has more takedowns than any other light heavyweight in UFC history and has been successful against every opponent he's tried to put on the mat, Jones has never once been taken down.

Of course, you could flip some of that around in Evans' favor. Maybe he'll be the first to take Jones off his feet. Maybe one of his headhunting fists will prove to be a sudden game-changer. Anything can happen in a mixed martial arts fight. With two elite fighters facing off, we could witness 25 minutes of momentum shifts. Or the fight could end violently before Bruce Buffer has taken his seat at cageside.

I don't know that Rashad Evans will walk out of Phillips Arena with the UFC belt Saturday night, but I do think he'll give Jon Jones the best fight he's ever had. Much has been made of Jones having defeated reigning or former world champions in each of his last three bouts. And the champ deserves all accolades for that. But Evans, also a former belt holder, is at a better place in his career than any of them. Lyoto Machida faced Jones after having lost two of three fights. Quinton Jackson has been a shell of the fighter who legitimately could call himself "Rampage." And on the night in March 2011 when Jones became champ at age 24, Mauricio Rua was on an upswing in some ways, having taken the belt from Machida. But "Shogun" was coming off an injury. Evans, by contrast, is healthy and in the midst of a string of dominant wins. He's long been over the only loss of his career, to Machida nearly three years ago. He's at the top of his game.

63.6: Percent of his takedown attempts than have been successful, the best in UFC history among light heavyweights and eighth best overall, according to Fight Metric statistics. (Georges St-Pierre leads all fighters at 77.3 percent; Evans is second among light heavies, at 53.3.)

0: Times he's been taken down in his 10-fight UFC career.

12: Seconds he's spent on his back.

2.4: His strike differential, meaning he lands 2.4 more strikes in every minute of a fight than he takes from an opponent.

84½: Reach, in inches, which gives him a 9½-inch advantage over Evans.

48: Takedowns landed in his 14 UFC fights, the most in the organization's history among light heavyweights and tied for sixth place among all fighters. (GSP leads here, too, with 68.) However, half of Rashad's takedowns came during the first three UFC bouts. As his striking has improved, he's been content to keep fights standing.

66.7: Striking defense percentage, meaning that over his UFC career the quick-footed Evans has evaded two-thirds of the punches and kicks directed his way. (Jones is right there with him, at 66.6.)

39.5: Striking accuracy percentage, which is slightly below the UFC average. (Jones connects at a 51.9 percent clip.)

5: Inches shorter he is, at 5 feet 11, than the 6-4 Jones. The significance: 84.4 percent of Rashad's successful strikes land to the head, to just 11.2 percent to the body. Will his usual target be too much of a stretch?

1: Common opponent loss. Both fighters have beaten Quinton Jackson and Stephan Bonnar. But Evans suffered a 2009 knockout loss to Lyoto Machida, whom Jones beat via submission last December.

What we should expect: I know we're going beyond numbers here, but one thing that struck me -- and surprised me, really -- as I looked at the fighters' stats was that Jones and Evans are very similar in their positional games. Both land around 45 percent of their strikes from distance, a little over 20 percent from the clinch and between 30 and 35 percent from the ground.

The attacks they launch from those positions are far different, of course, but what I take from the stats is that these guys share comfort zones. So that could mean we'll see less feeling out and more pure engagement. That's good for the fans. And I think it'll be mostly a standup fight, despite all the yammering between the fighters about whether Evans truly has an edge on the ground. Rashad has made striking his game, and Jones will have no quarrel with that.

Why we should care: "This fight, it has been referred to on several occasions as the Ali vs. Frazier of our sport and of our time," Jones said last week during a conference call with MMA media. Now, I haven't paid close enough attention to know whether anyone in the UFC or the media really has dared go that deeply into silly hyperbole. But let me set the record straight: This ain't Ali vs. Frazier. (It's not even the non-"Fight of the Century," non-"Thriller in Manila" second meeting.)

In MMA terms, however, this fight has it all. There's a championship belt at stake. It pits two fighters in their prime. We have acrimony between two guys who were friends and trained together enough to have developed some familiarity with each other's games. And if Jones wins, he could ascend to top of the mythical pound-for-pound mountain. What more could you want?

"What Rashad has done, he took one day in 2010, just amplified it, making a whole base of people believing he's a way superior grappler than me. It's interesting. ... Yeah, 2010, I'll admit, he was definitely a little bit better than me. He was definitely in his prime. Maybe a little bit stronger of a grappler in 2010. But I truly believe in my heart that he's slightly slowing down. I believe that I'm speeding up to the point where he's going to possibly be finished in this fight."--Jones, speaking to USA Today about the time, cited by Evans, when he immobilized Jones on the mat in practice

"Jon always wanted to fight me. Jon never wants to be teammates and not to be like brothers. Jon came on the team to learn the way to beat me so he can fight me."--Evans during a conference call with MMA media last week

"Trust me, I know the ways I can lose and I'm training for that. You don't think I'm training extensively on my bottom game and my takedown defense? You don't know if I'm gonna shoot on you or if it's gonna be a fake shot. You don't know what you're getting into. So you can say what you want, but I know just as much as you think that you know."--Jones during the conference call

"When you're in there with me, I get you to skip to my Lou. And you willskip to my Lou."--Evans during the conference call, in one of the most quizzical and at the same time eloquent bits of trash talk in the sport's history. (If trash talking were scored like a fight, that would be a 10-7 round.)

"I felt I had kind of a duty to the team. What I mean by that is Jon Jones is on the team; Rashad has left the team and has made it pretty clear he's not coming back. My personal feeling, if I wanted to be a little selfish, I would say, 'I don't want to deal with any of it. I don't want to be there at all.' But it has to mean something to be on a team."--Greg Jackson, explaining to MMAFighting.com's The MMA Hour his decision to corner Jones against Evans, his longtime student

"Greg talks about oh, you know, 'for the team,' 'the team did great,' but the team consists of I, which is Greg Jackson, and that's what the team consists of. It's about Greg Jackson getting the coach of the year award. That's pretty much what it consists of."--Evans during last week's conference call

Back onstage but out of the spotlight: It's probably wrong to refer to an event's second-billed bout as "under the radar," but with so much attention focused on Jones vs. Evans, Rory MacDonald's return to the cage isn't getting much play. The 22-year-old Canadian was on quite a roll last year, with wins over Nate Diaz and Mike Pyle showing that he'd gotten over his lone career loss, a late stoppage by Carlos Condit in a 2010 fight MacDonald appeared to be winning. But then he had to pull out of a December bout because of injury. So now he's back, facing Che Mills, the winner of five straight, including a quick KO of Chris Cope in his UFC debut in November. This second go figures to be a stiffer challenge for the Englishman.

Heavy duty: Brendan Schaub had won four straight fights and was looking good once again last August when he ran into an Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira right hand, and the next thing you knew, the big Brazilian was sitting on top of the cage, celebrating with the crowd in Rio. Schaub lost not just a fight that night, but also a lot of momentum. He'll try to get moving forward again Saturday against Ben Rothwell. He'd better, because a loss to Rothwell, a loser in three of his last five, would send the momentum train into reverse.

A big seller: It will not be the most artful exhibition of mixed martial arts you'll see this weekend, but the final fight in the two-hour free-TV preliminary card (8 p.m. ET, FX) should provide the kind of fireworks that'll draw some attention to the ubiquitous Dana White-Joe Rogan PPV infomercial that always ends the free offerings. Travis Browne is 12-0-1, with one of his nine knockouts coming against Stefan Struve. Chad Griggs (11-1, 9 KOs) is bringing his big fists and bigger sideburns over from Strikeforce. Timber!

You May Like

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)