You don’t need much to create animosity in a sport where the object of the game is to knock your opponent unconscious. The mere fact that somebody is trying to hurt you is reason enough to hate them for the 15 minutes you are scheduled to spend with them in a cage. But when you mix other ingredients into the cauldron–bloated egos, perceived jealousy, soured friendship and outright betrayal–what you have is a concoction that is much more than business as usual. It becomes personal.
Rashad Evans always knew in the back of his mind that it would be personal when it came to his former friend and training partner Jon Jones. The moment Jones walked into the gym in which he trains several years ago, Evans saw someone who he could mentor to one day be great–perhaps even better than him. Little did Evans know, he helped create a monster that would bite the hand that once helped feed Jones.
“I just want to fight already. I’m really tired of talking,” Evans exhales over the phone. The exhausting ongoing saga between he and Jon Jones will finally come to a head on April 21st when the two meet in Atlanta at UFC 145 for Jones’ UFC light heavyweight championship. That belt Jones has around his waist, once belonged to Evans. The gym in which Jones trains, was one that Evans helped build and gain notoriety. This isn’t as much about the championship as it is about pride and dignity.
Because Jones broke the sacred rule of MMA trainer extraordinaire Greg Jackson’s team–“teammates will never entertain the idea of fighting another teammate”–Evans had to leave everything he knew behind and start over from scratch. How could you stay in a kingdom where you have gone from king to next on the food chain? According to Evans, he never wanted to fight Jones nor did he want to leave Greg Jackson‘s gym. But due to what he considers backstabbing and betrayal, Evans could no longer remain where he felt he wasn’t wanted.
“(Greg Jackson) created the situation when he brought Jon Jones to the team. Greg brought him on the team for his own selfish reasons,” Evans says about whether he knew this day was coming. As much as he proclaimed that he would never fight his teammate, an interview where Jones entertained the suggestion ruffled Evans’ feathers. Jones opted for business over friendship and Evans knew that a fight between the two was now inevitable considering that they were the top dogs in the 205 lbs.-division and Jones left the door wide open for them to clash. “Jon Jones didn’t follow the code that we had,” says Evans. “He can say whatever he wants about it but he knows damn well that he’s as wrong as two left shoes. Jon Jones’ insecurities are the reason why we couldn’t co-exist on a team. He really wanted to know if he was better than me.”
We’ve all heard the story about how the little brother admires the big brother until one day he grows up and decides that he must prove that he’s better than his older sibling. They may not be blood brothers, but 32-year-old Evans saw the 24-year-old Jones as brothers in the struggle. However, somewhere along the line, Jones’ admiration for Evans was trumped by bitterness and greed. Jones wanted to be the top dog at Greg Jackson’s gym and if he had to walk over his friend and training partner’s carcass to become that, so be it.
“Everything he does–when he crawls into the cage or starts the fight on one knee–he wants to be me,” Evans says with a chuckle. “He tried to wear suits for a while and dress like me. When we used to hang out together, he would be infatuated with how people would come up to me and ask to take pictures. He didn’t want to be like me, he wanted to be me.”
The reality is that Jones has become an extraordinary talent in the UFC. Nobody has come close to giving Jones problems in the cage. Evans and Jones share three opponents: Lyoto Machida, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Stephan Bonnar. Evans is 2-1 against those fighters while Jones is a dominant 3-0. Machida is the only man to defeat Rashad Evans. Jones choked him stiff in a dominant performance. Because of his supremacy in the Octagon, the odds say that Evans is a huge underdog against the seemingly indestructible Jones. But “Suga” says that odds will mean absolutely nothing when the cage door closes on the evening of April 21st.
“Everybody is making a big deal about Jon Jones,” Evans says. “But are people really paying attention to the past? Look at other fighters who were considered unbeatable. Fedor Emelianenko couldn’t lose, and he lost. The same goes for Lyoto Machida, Cain Velasquez, Georges St. Pierre and others. People forget that there’s nobody in this fight game that is immortal.”
Evans obviously knows something that we don’t when it comes to his old training partner. The rubix cube that nobody has come close to figuring out now has to face the person who helped create it. If you watch it eat, sleep and breathe, eventually you will find chinks in the armor. And when that cage door closes, Evans will look to expose Jones.
“I think he’s definitely improved but there are things that I can expose about Jon,” Evans says. “Jon is used to winning. He doesn’t know what it’s like to have the chips down and have to come back. His intestinal fortitude will be tested in this fight.”
As an old school hip-hop head, Evans likens his battle with Jones to emcees trading barbs on a street corner. Once you find that button that makes your opponent’s eyebrow furrow, you keep pushing it until he falls apart and everyone surrounding realizes that he’s just as human as the next man. For every fight, Evans enters the cage to a hip-hop song that captures the moment. Against Phil Davis, when the new blood faced the seasoned veteran it was Mobb Deep’s “Survival of the Fittest”; against Rampage Jackson, when he saw fear in Jackson’s eyes it was “Shook Ones (Part II)”; when he faced Tito Ortiz in a bout he needed to win, it was Notorious B.I.G.’s “Victory.” So what will it be on Saturday night when the history between two men ends in a crescendo of violence?
“I’m not sure what I’m coming out to yet, but, you know, I have to go old school, classic hip-hop,” says Evans. “However, I might just come out to Immortal Technique’s ‘The Point of No Return.'”
When it has come to this, there is no turning back.