When Rashad Evans
stood on the floor of the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey in March and declared himself "done" with longtime trainer Greg Jackson
, it was difficult to tell how seriously we were supposed to take that.
His former Jackson camp teammate and training partner, Jon Jones
, had only moments earlier claimed the UFC
light heavyweight belt in a title shot that was originally supposed to belong to Evans, so the wound was still fresh. But what would happen to Evans if he really did turn his back on the coaches that had taken him from a contender to a UFC champ?
It's taken several months and a few different opponents, but on Saturday night at UFC 133
we'll get our answer. As Evans prepares to step into the Octagon without Jackson behind him for the first time in years, the picture he paints of his new life in a new gym -- Imperial Athletics in Boca Raton, Florida -- is as rosy as you'd expect from a guy who left his old home with a bitter taste in his mouth.
"When I came out here, I didn't really know how things were going to be. Coming from Greg Jackson's camp, I was just not thinking that there could be another situation that could rival that one," Evans said on the UFC 133 media call.
"But I was pleased to find out that things here are very good. I've got a great team, great training partners, and we've got this energy in the gym that's just amazing. When you have a gym that has great energy, and great training practices and it's just fun to be in, it makes the grind of training that much easier. It makes you grow that much more as an athlete because you don't mind putting in the extra time in the gym because it's fun to be there."
Of course, that's what we expect him to say. The fighter who has left his old team for a new one isn't about to go on at length about how miserable he is, like a kid calling his parents from summer camp and begging to come home.
But while Jackson remains one of the sport's most successful and most popular trainers, leaving his Albuquerque, New Mexico gym has its upsides for Evans, he said. For one thing, a popular trainer is a busy trainer, and there are only so many hours in the day for him to devote to each fighter. At his new gym, Evans can have a training camp that's centered more on his individual needs.
"When you get to a certain point, you really need a lot of time, and coaches that spend a lot of time with you and make sure you get the one-on-one, and you're just seeing different things," said Evans. "After being at Jackson's for a while, with so many people at the gym, it just got harder and harder for me to get that time. When you're in a situation like that, sometimes it gets a little bit stagnant. It's just one of those things where it's like, how am I to reinvent myself if I'm pretty much learning the same things and I'm not getting the time that I need? You kind of get stagnant in your learning and you kind of get a little bit disinterested."
At Imperial, Evans said, he has training partners from all over -- the team calls itself the "Blackzilians," he noted -- and with that comes "a freshness."
"That was the biggest part and that made the biggest difference in this camp," he added.
And maybe a change was necessary, since so much else has changed since the first time he fought Tito Ortiz
, a little over four years ago. He had Jackson in his corner that night, but what he didn't have was much big fight experience in the UFC.
He and Ortiz fought to a draw at UFC 73 after Ortiz was penalized a point for holding on to the fence to avoid a takedown, and the fight still seems to irk Evans when he thinks back on it.
"I felt horrible about the performance. I felt horrible about the performance for years. It's one of those fights you just want to get back. My inexperience at that level, I really didn't get my mind wrapped around the situation until it was a little bit too late, but I'm a long ways from that now."
And it's true, he is. There are several years and no shortage of career ups and downs for both Evans and Ortiz separating them from that night in Sacramento.
But just because things change doesn't always mean it's for the better. In his first fight since leaving the gym where he spent the bulk of pro career, it's hard to know how the move will ultimately affect Evans. Even he can't know for sure how it's going to feel to step in the Octagon, turn around to face his corner, and not see Jackson standing there.
The one thing he does know, it seems, is that his vow to leave Albuquerque for good wasn't just the kind of thing you say when you're hurt. He meant it, and he doesn't see himself changing his mind any time soon.
"Honestly, there's really no reason for me to go back," he said. "I think I've found training elsewhere better. It's nothing against Greg and those guys or the other guys at Jackson's, but at the same time if you find training better elsewhere, then why go backwards?"