Rashad’s Rise to Power

By Greg Savage May 19, 2009
When Rashad Evans accepted Keith Jardine’s offer to visit his camp in Albuquerque, N.M., following the second season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” he knew he had found a home. The diamond in the rough has since been cut and polished and now sits atop the UFC light heavyweight division, having knocked off then champion Forrest Griffin in December.

A major reason behind his rise to the summit is the team of training partners and coaches assembled around the former Michigan State University wrestler. Fighters like UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, Nate Marquardt, Joey Villasenor and Jardine, along with his two main trainers, Greg Jackson and Mike Winklejohn, have given Evans a stable foundation upon which to build.

In turn, Evans presented Jackson and Winklejohn a new canvas with which to experiment and fine tune. Their handy work will be put to perhaps its most stringent test this Saturday, when Evans (13-0-1) defends his belt for the first time against undefeated challenger Lyoto Machida in the UFC 98 main event at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.

So what do Jackson and Winklejohn think about their protégé’s latest foe?

“Machida is very crafty, and he is a smart fighter,” Jackson said. “He is able to move forward and fight well, and he’s able to kind of pull you in and counter well. We’re going to have to fight for little things, take each battle as it comes … and, hopefully, we will be able to beat him in places where he is most comfortable.”

While he knows Machida (14-0) represents a formidable obstacle for his charge, Jackson is full of praise for Evans, too.

“He just keeps getting better and better as a fighter,” Jackson said. “The great thing about him is he is young, he’s constantly improving, he’s a real humble guy, he’s a student of the game, and, so, he’s just a pleasure to coach.”

Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

Mike Winklejohn may be the
Jackson camp's invisible man.
Winklejohn may be the Jackson camp’s invisible man to many casual fans, but Jackson, his long-time friend and business partner, leans on him when it comes to a lot of the stand-up training in Albuquerque. A grizzled veteran of combat sports, Winklejohn has seen just about everything fighting has to offer. His eyes light up when asked about Evans, a man whose evolution he has overseen for the last three years.

“Rashad went from a wrestler [to] where now he is known as a great striker,” Winklejohn said. “He is very intelligent and he learns very fast and he has some God-given abilities.”

When asked what has helped Evans reach the top of the light heavyweight division, Winklejohn points to one trait.

“His versatility is his most impressive trait as a fighter,” he said. “He can do just about anything, be it Thai boxing, wrestling or the groundwork -- his ground game is actually very underrated -- and he can do them all at a very high level.

“His eyes … he keeps his eyes open, he knows what he is hitting, and, along with the footwork -- being in the right place at the right time -- he is very explosive,” added Winklejohn, affectionately known as Jackson’s “Big Brother.” “I always say he has [Mike] Tyson-like explosiveness. People haven’t seen it yet. Give it some time. He’s getting better.”

Evans may need that kind of explosiveness against Machida, who has been a one-man wrecking ball at 205 pounds since he made his UFC debut just over two years ago. Nevermind losing a fight, Machida may not have even dropped a round in his six UFC contests.

“Machida is a tough nut to crack,” Winklejohn said. “He’s a talented guy with good reactions; he steps back, causes a hole and counters real well. [The] plan is to have Rashad not be there when Machida wants to counter. We are going to counter the counter or make Machida come at Rashad.”

Bookmakers do not seem to buy into Evans’ chances to successfully implement such a gameplan. They have installed Machida as the favorite despite his challenger status. One might think that would be a bone of contention for the Evans camp, but Jackson quickly snuffed out any attempt to make much out of the odds.

“We love being the underdog,” Jackson said. “We’re almost always the underdog for some reason, and that’s great. It’s a situation that we are very comfortable in. It’s a situation that we draw strength from, and we’re really looking forward to proving everybody wrong, or at least doing our best to prove everybody wrong.”

Jackson and Winklejohn have done their share of celebrating after watching Evans prove people wrong time and time again. No one really gave him much of a chance against iconic former champion Chuck Liddell at UFC 88 in September, but Winklejohn sees a common thread to predicting success for Evans.

“I told Rashad if the crowd starts booing, that’s a good thing; we have the right gameplan,” said Winklejohn, echoing the sentiments he imparted before Evans knocked out Liddell in Atlanta.

While that might not bode well for fans hoping to see a knock down, drag out war between two technicians, it could end up being sweet music to the ears of fans craving more symphony than heavy metal.
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