There is added motivation for Rashad Evans (bottom) in fighting Tito Ortiz (top). | Photo: Sherdog.com
At the end of UFC 114, all seemed to be right in the world of Rashad Evans. He had scored a decision victory over archrival Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and earned himself the opportunity to regain the UFC light heavyweight title. Fortuitously, it would come against a new champion and better stylistic matchup in Mauricio “Shogun” Rua rather than former titleholder Lyoto Machida, who dominated and knocked out Evans one year previous.
More than 14 months later, Evans returns to action at UFC 133 on Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia under very different circumstances. Injuries have intervened. Personal relationships have dissolved. Training camps have moved. A title shot is no longer ensured. And standing in his way is a most improbable main event opponent.
Following his win over Machida at UFC 113, Rua underwent reconstructive knee surgery. Evans resisted taking an interim fight in the fall of 2010 because he did not want to risk his shot at the 205-pound belt, so he waited for Shogun to heal; a title match was scheduled for March 2011. However, Evans suffered a knee injury of his own and had to exit the fight. As a result, training partner Jon Jones was given the shot against Rua at UFC 128, won the title and emerged as one of the UFC’s hottest commodities. From there, life only grew more chaotic for Evans.
A dispute over Jones’ willingness to fight him ended their friendship and led to a falling out between Evans and longtime trainer Greg Jackson. A public war of words ensued, and a title match between Jones and Evans was targeted for UFC 133. However, Jones decided he was going to have hand surgery and withdrew from the bout, leaving Evans to be matched against undefeated rising star Phil Davis.
Jones shortly thereafter elected not to have hand surgery, but Evans’ bout with Davis was preserved. Jones’ first title defense instead was scheduled against an old Evans rival, Jackson, the next month. Evans would not get his immediate title shot after all, and it would instead go to the man he beat to originally earn it. To complete the divine joke, the Evans-Davis bout that had been preserved in lieu of Evans-Jones did not end up taking place, either. Davis pulled out and Tito Ortiz, fresh off his first win since 2006, was tapped as the main event replacement against Evans.
What’s nice for Evans coming out of such turbulence is that, as a fighter, he has an ideal outlet to provide catharsis for his frustrations and definitively leave them in the past. The fight with Ortiz is an opportunity to fully focus on defeating an opponent while brushing aside the distractions and setbacks.
“I’m very anxious to get back in the cage,” Evans says. “It’s been a long 14 months, a lot of ups and downs inside and outside the cage. I’m looking to get in there and get used to competing again.”
There is added motivation for Evans in fighting Ortiz. The two fought to a controversial unanimous draw at UFC 73 in 2007. Ortiz won two of three rounds from each of the judges but was deducted a point for grabbing the fence in the second. Ortiz’s supporters argued he deserved the victory, while Evans’ supporters suggested the second round would have gone to their man if Ortiz had not repeatedly grabbed the fence. Now, the two former light heavyweight champions can settle the score.
While watching the first fight presents an image of two evenly matched fighters, the careers of Evans and Ortiz have gone in radically different directions since then. Evans has improved every aspect of his game and scored wins over high-caliber opposition: Jackson, Michael Bisping, Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin and Thiago Silva. Ortiz has suffered through injuries and largely struggled in the Octagon. While a surprising submission win over Ryan Bader at UFC 132 on July 2 gave Ortiz renewed confidence, the oddsmakers have little faith in the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” and have made Evans the heavy favorite.
It looks like a classic trap fight, as Evans looks towards a potential title bout with rivals Jackson or Jones. If Evans overlooks Ortiz, he could find himself in the same position that Bader did a little more than a month ago. However, Evans has the motivation of the prior draw, as well as the opportunity to fight for the first time in more than a year. That makes a letdown less likely.
“I felt horrible about that performance [against Ortiz] for years,” Evans says. “It’s one of those fights you want to get back. I was just young and inexperienced at that level. I didn’t get my mind wrapped around the situation until it was a little too late, but I’m a long ways from that now.”
Ortiz is not without his dangers, but, overall, he represents an ideal opponent from Evans’ perspective. He carries a much bigger name than Davis and will likely serve as a less formidable combatant at this stage of his career. The risk/reward ratio is good, and Evans is in solid position for a bankable grudge title match in late 2011 or early 2012, so long as he does not underestimate Ortiz.
To prepare for the bout, Evans has moved his training camp to Imperial Athletics in Boca Raton, Fla. There, he trains with the likes of former Sengoku Raiden Championship middleweight champion Jorge Santiago, two-time K-1 Hero’s 154-pound grand prix winner Gesias Cavalcante and Danillo Villefort. It is a major development in Evans’ career, and many are interested to see whether or not the move pays dividends.
During his time at Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts in Albuquerque, N.M., Evans found great success and improvement. There, Jackson has a stable of elite fighters and remains one of the most respected trainers in the game. However, there can come a time when a change of scenery is beneficial in and of itself. Evans, to no one’s surprise, insists the move has suited him well.
“Training’s been great, man,” he says. “I got some really good training partners out here, really good coaches. When I came out here to South Florida, I didn’t know how things were going to be coming from Greg Jackson’s camp. I was not thinking there could be another situation that could rival that one, but I was pleased to find out things here are very good. We got a great team, great training partners and this energy in the gym that’s just amazing.”
Evans’ career success has been founded mostly on his wrestling and striking skills, but even his jiu-jitsu game is reported to be in excellent shape in advance of his rematch against an opponent with underrated submissions.
“He has a good and smart ground game,” trainer Sergio Gasparelli tells Sherdog.com. “Maybe his last team and coaches didn’t know how to work his skills or didn’t want to give emphasis on BJJ. The work we do on him is to teach Evans new positions that would help him to find holes in opponents’ games.”
After the fight with Ortiz, Evans can evaluate his training development, worry about his career rivals and focus on a potential opportunity to regain the light heavyweight crown. For now, it is just about winning a fight, something he has not done in quite some time. A 14-month break is particularly striking for a fighter who fought 20 times -- including his bouts on Season 2 of “The Ultimate Fighter” -- in the prior 73 months.
In less than a week, none of that will matter. Not the layoff. Not the change in training camps. Not the drama outside the cage. It will just be Evans and Ortiz, competing to be the best man on that particular August night.
Gleidson Venga contributed to this story.