Ask Rashad Evans about Saturday's UFC light heavyweight title showdown with Jon Jones and he'll tell you it could have been avoided. That it should have been avoided.
Sure, Evans was skeptical when then-trainer Greg Jackson invited Jones -- a promising prospect with aspirations in the 205-pound division Evans once ruled -- to his training camp in 2010. He remembers their first meeting at the UFC Expo, when Jones nerded out with bubbly excitement upon meeting Evans, then (and still) one of the sport's biggest stars. He remembers giving Jones his blessing to fight Mauricio "Shogun" Rua for the title when an injury forced Evans out of the fight.
"I knew he was going to beat Shogun," said Evans of Jones' star-making victory in March 2011, "so I was just going to be the best background singer in the world."
Evans was certainly the opener to Jones' headlining act at Thursday's open workouts at the Georgia State University Sports Arena. The 32-year-old was first on the itinerary, showcasing his boxing skills before any fans had managed to negotiate their way into the media-only event, and held court afterward before an intimate gaggle of a dozen or so reporters.
Jones, by contrast, was the last of the eight fighters to take the mat. He arrived 35 minutes late, trailed by an entourage of no fewer than 11 men. ("That must be a record," quipped one UFC public-relations vet.) He walked to the far end of the 4,500-seat basketball gym and deliberately removed his new UFC-endorsed line of apparel, surrounded by at least 80 media members and photographers. Fact is Jon Jones, UFC light heavyweight champion, has been over it for a while. "I'm a guy who really has no problems with anyone in the UFC, and not one fighter can say they really have a problem with me," Jones said last week. "I would like to be able to be at a UFC event and not feel awkward in the same room with Rashad."
Evans was once the champion, the charismatic talent who helped make Jackson's Submission Fighting camp into arguably the world's most celebrated MMA gym. Now it's Jones who's being courted by Nike and likened to such game-changing athletes as Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan -- flirting with a brand of crossover stardom that seemed inconceivable for a mixed martial artist when Evans joined Jackson's then-undistinguished camp in 2005.
"He always wanted to be in that No. 1 spot," Evans said, more wistful than hostile as he assessed the broken fraternity. "Now he's probably wishing that he didn't have that spot. I know. He'll tell you one thing to your face but I guarantee: he doesn't like all the cameras, he doesn't like all the pressure. He puts on a brave face, but it's not what he thought it would be."
If it comes off as sour grapes, that's because fighting a teammate can prove to be treacherous emotional ground. Everybody not on the business side of this promotion seems to be looking more forward to Sunday than Saturday. "I'm just happy to get it over with," Jackson confessed Thursday while Jones preened for the cameras. "Hopefully we can move on."
Georges St-Pierre admitted to having "a hard time" when he defended his UFC welterweight title against his friend Jake Shields at last year's UFC 129.
"They will have emotion," St-Pierre said Thursday of Evans and Jones. "There is something different about this fight because they know each other. I don't know who will be favored because of that, but if you fight sometime with too much emotion, you can make a mistake.
"Both of these guys are incredibly talented. I believe that a mistake from one of these two guys will be fatal."
St-Pierre will face a similar challenge later this year, when he's expected to defend his 170-pound strap against Carlos Condit. Both men train under Jackson.
"[It's] different because we never actually trained together," St-Pierre said Thursday. "We trained in the same gym at the same time. We trained with the same training partner, but I actually only shook Carlos Condit's hand. I never grappled with him or wrestled or sparred with him."
And Jackson won't be in the corner for either St-Pierre or Condit. Not so for Saturday's fight, when Evans will be staring across the octagon at an opponent he helped wean and a trainer whose reputation he helped elevate.
"I've actually seen Greg a few times at other shows," Evans said. "We just don't speak. It's weird to be around somebody that you used to always talk to, and then it's like you don't even know them anymore.
"It's kind of tough to go against guys that you thought you'd never go against and coaches you were like family with."
Evans ranks among the UFC's most experienced fighters, with victories over Michael Bisping, Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Tito Ortiz and Phil Davis. Yet he is a 5-to-1 underdog against Jones, an opponent eight years his junior, who appears to be on the fast track to stratospheric fame. When asked for his assessment of Jones' meteoric rise -- the hyperbolic comparisons to His Airness -- Evans was idiosyncratically profound.
"Everybody has the potential to be something," he said. "Know how many Michael Jordans never made it out the hood? Or how many great players were never known? There's always great potential everywhere, but it's what you can do with it that matters."