I have seen Rashad Evans fight since his time on the Ultimate Fighter. I remember cheering for him because I knew he was talented and had a bright future. I was rooting for him to beat a legend in Chuck Liddell because I knew a win over "The Iceman" would be a big stepping stone in his career.
But going into the title fights with Forrest Griffin and Lyoto Machida I felt that Evans' was acting too confident and cocky in front of the cameras. The over the top bravado and disrespect that Mohammed Ali had towards his opponents is something I will always hold against Ali and those same attitudes I saw coming out in interviews and promotions done with Evans. I was almost hurt because I knew deep down Rashad Evans is NOT a self-promoting, egotistical, flamboyant jerk; yet in interviews and in promotional clips that is how he came off to me. I know Rashad Evans can be great in MMA like Ali was in boxing but I dislike when athletes try to emulate Ali's public persona.
One of the great elements of Mixed Martial Arts is that historically and culturally it is different from other sports because the way of the Martial Artist is to respect one's opponent and look to win in the most technically superior fashion. I myself have taken Martial Arts classes and instruction over the years so I look at the mind games that someone like Mohammed Ali used with his opponents as disrespectful and smokescreen to cover up for Ali's flaws.
Rashad Evans is an MMA fighter, not a boxer. There is a difference between promoting and hyping a fight in contrast to disrespecting one's opponent and using psychological manipulation more often then letting your performance do the talking. That is why I cheered for Griffin, Machida and Quinton Jackson when they faught against Evans. Not because I hate or despite Evans, but because I disliked what he was portraying himself as: an athletic diva.
Something happened between May of 2010 and now to Rashad Evans. Whether it was an epiphany, gaining wisdom and maturity, someone he respected sitting him down or just getting out of the familiar surroundings of Jackson MMA; whatever triggered the change in Evans' overall demeanor and evolution in MMA skills it was all on full display this past Saturday night. Evans came into the rematch with Tito Ortiz stronger, sharper, more focused, and maybe even faster then I have ever seen him. It was as if over the last 14 months Evans got an upgrade in every area of his game and mentally he is in a great place. His performance against Ortiz was excellent in every way and I couldn't help but stand and cheer for him at the end of the fight out of respect.
But then Evans took it even further. He went out of his way after the fight during interviews and the post-fight press conference to show respect and grattitude towards Ortiz for taking the fight on short notice and for how Ortiz faught. Evans didn't gloat with the spotlight on him, instead he credited his team training him well and the hard work he put into getting better and back into the Octagon. This is a fighter who was ready to walk the walk instead of running his mouth or loving himself.
The two best things that have happened to Rashad Evans in my opinion are losing to Lyoto Machida and Jon Jones training at Jackson MMA. Machida humbled Evans and showed that no fighter is invicible or too talented to loose a fight. Jones showed Evans the reflection that many people saw when they looked at Rashad: talented, cocky, proud, and immature. Evans knows he is better then that. Jackson MMA is one of the top MMA gyms in the world but Evans had no way to grow and get better there anymore. Evans took the path less traveled and that path will lead him to reclaim the title that was once his: UFC Light Heavyweight Champion.
Evans has the chance to go down as one of the best MMA fighters of all time. Seriously. Some people may laugh at that but lets look at the facts:
*Evans is 16-1-1 so far in his career
*He has beaten 3 superstars/legends in MMA (Liddell, "Rampage", Ortiz)
*He has some of the best standup skills in all of MMA, a notch below guys like Anderson Silva and Vitor Belfort
*He has a great wrestling base, coming from a NCAA Division 1 wrestling program (Michigan State)
*He is one of the more intellegent, quick thinking fighters in the MMA game
But yet some people will still hold the past against him. I am not one of them. I know greatness when I see it and the sky is the limit for Evans. At UFC 133 Evans put all fighters at 205 pounds on notice: He is back and better then ever. I cannot wait to see him fight again and I hope some day i get to meet Rashad Evans, shake his hand, and tell him to his face how much I respect and admire him.
Rashad Evans 2.0 is more then just a great fighter, it is a model to show other young athletes of how to become great in their athletic profession and in life.