NEWARK, N.J. – Call it the championship life cycle: one legend is barely out of his post-knockout haze, his facial tissue still in mid-swell, when the new champ is already confronting his next challenger on a canvas where the blood hasn't even dried yet.
It wasn't an unfamiliar encounter when former training partners Jon Jones
and Rashad Evans
shook hands in the middle of the Octagon before agreeing to beat each other up at some point in the near future. It also wasn't exactly an enthusiastic agreement on either man's part, though it was a decisive one.
Jones didn't just beat Mauricio "Shogun" Rua
to claim the UFC light heavyweight title at UFC 128 – he utterly demolished him. In a little less than three full rounds of combat, there wasn't a second where it wasn't Jones' fight. Aside from possibly hurting his elbow on Rua's skull, Jones had almost nothing to worry about in the biggest fight of his career.
After such a dominant victory over such a celebrated opponent, you'd think the 23-year-old phenom might get a minute to savor the moment before being faced with a fight against his teammate.
Unfortunately, the fight game doesn't have time for such pleasantries. Not when there's another fight to sell.
As much as we might love the friend-versus-friend angle of a Jones-Evans title fight, it's only partially rooted in fact. Yes, they've been training partners for a relatively brief period of time, but these two aren't best buds, according to just about everyone who knows them. They're colleagues, maybe. Training partners, occasionally. But let's just say they don't have a standing movie date every Sunday afternoon, nor are they likely to be all that broken up about the possibility of hurting each other.
Still, their familiarity with one another in the training room makes for an interesting, if slightly uncomfortable situation, and the UFC wasted no time seizing on that even as Jones was still getting used to having the weight of the belt around his waist.
After the way Jones ran through Rua, the difficult part for the UFC might be convincing fans that Evans stands a chance against him. You could argue that Rua might not have been at his best after the injury layoff, or that Jones was simply a horrible style match-up for him, but when's the last time we saw even the very worst version of Rua look so helpless from start to finish? The only thing the champion did better than the challenger on Saturday night was fall down.
Now Evans will get his chance to poke a hole in the legend of Jon Jones, even if there aren't many people who are giving him a chance to be anything other than the next chapter in that story.
Obviously, after testing each other in the gym the fighters have a better idea than we do about how that match-up might unfold. You don't see Evans throwing up his hands and declaring that he'd rather move weight classes than have to take the kind of punishment Rua did, so he must think he stands a chance even if most fans don't.
Then again, if Evans doesn't feel like he can beat anyone on any given night, he's in the wrong business. As soon as Jones declared himself open to a potential fight against his (now former) teammate, Evans really had no choice but to accept or risk appearing like he was running from a potential beatdown.
Let's face it: at 31 years old, Evans doesn't have time to wait around for Jones to drop the belt of his own volition. And the way Jones looked on Saturday night, that probably won't happen for a good long while anyway.
Making Evans his first challenger – not to mention getting the two to seal it with a handshake just moments after Jones became the champ – was a minor coup for UFC president Dana White. Regardless of whether the fight is competitive in the end, he's already gotten what he wanted. White has been battering away at this particular barrier for years, and now he's finally broken through it, pitting two of Greg Jackson's fighters against each other mere months after they'd both sworn it would never happen.
It just goes to show how in this business a 'never' becomes a 'maybe' just before turning into an 'absolutely.' As soon as the championship belt enters the picture, guys start rethinking the difference between true friendships and working relationships.
At least for the next few months, Jones and Evans will share neither. And for better or worse, every other fighter who's ever made a similar non-compete promise to his buddies in the gym will be watching and wondering.