It didn’t have to be like this. The more Rashad Evans thinks about the way the rivalry unfolded between himself and UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, the more he thinks that the whole thing could have been avoided.
Maybe not the fight, which is now just over a week away at UFC 145 in Atlanta on April 21. Maybe one way or another, that was eventually going to happen. But all the other stuff -- the public rivalry, the whole friends-becoming-enemies narrative that the UFC sold and the media so eagerly bought -- maybe all that didn’t have to happen, at least not in this way. Then again, once the ball got rolling, it’s not as if Evans or Jones did much to try and stop it.
"I think it was a bit the media, but we definitely built it up as well," Evans told MMA Fighting in a recent phone interview. "It’s something that was brewing for a while before the media even caught it on camera."
For Evans, there are two separate, distinct rivalries at work here. One is with Jones, who Evans believes violated their agreement when he said in a Versus pre-fight interview that he’d fight his teammate if his job were on the line. The other is with Greg Jackson’s gym, and includes both Jackson himself and striking coach Mike Winkeljohn. That’s the one that’s been building for years, according to Evans. That’s the one that puts the hard edge in his voice when he talks about it.
"Greg kind of lost his way a bit," Evans said of his former coach and mentor. For years, it was a great team environment. But these days, according to Evans, "it’s just not the same as it used to be. It’s more transient, more commercial now."
When you see Jackson in some fighter’s corner on nearly every big fight night, Evans pointed out, that means his fighters aren’t seeing him in the gym.
"Greg used to be the nucleus that held everything together. We used to spend a lot of time with Greg at his house, and he would bring everybody together. We learned that that was how it was supposed to be, so that’s what we started to expect. Once he got busier and started taking on these different fighters, the team suffered. ...We were about training. We were about hard work. Greg was a different person back then, and I guess we all were different people back then."
It begs the question: when did then become now? When did everything change?
To Evans, it was right around the time of his first (and so far only) UFC light heavyweight title defense. As he prepared to take on Lyoto Machida at UFC 98, he felt like the team wasn’t exactly rallying to his aid. Jackson was busy, Evans said, and Winkeljohn was going through some medical issues. By the time he stepped in the cage that night in May of 2009, he didn’t feel quite ready. What happened next would become a fixture in UFC highlight reels. It would produce the memorable photo that still dogs him to this day. But more than anything, Evans said, it was his team’s response to his first (and, again, so far only) loss that bothered him the most.
"Mike Winkeljohn did not pick up the phone one time to give me a call, to check on me after the fight was over with. I was hurt by that. I was upset about it. Like he couldn’t even pick up the phone and say, ‘How are you feeling? You didn’t get it this time, but you’ll be back.’ Nothing. Not one time. People say that’s just how he is, but if you have a fighter who goes out there and fights for you, the least you can do is console him if he loses. That’s the least you can do. At least make a phone call."
In a 2011 interview with MMA Fighting, Winkeljohn accepted some of the blame for that, and admitted that perhaps he let his own tendencies as a fighter get in the way of what Evans needed from a coach.
"He had a bad night, the night was over, and maybe I made a mistake by not consoling him enough," Winkeljohn said. "I know that I was the type who, when I lost a fight, I just wanted to be left alone. I kind of misread that a little bit, but he just didn't do any of our game plan at all. Then he left. He went on the Ultimate Fighter show, he didn't call, and that was it. Then Jon Jones comes in."
Evans will tell you now that while he was wary of Jones joining the team at first, the two of them "got along great." They served as each other’s main sparring partners when they were together in the gym, and Evans can admit now that he almost wishes things hadn’t turned out the way they did, because "I kind of felt it with him for a while."
But once Jones’ star started to rise, Evans knew from experience that both of them needed to be very careful about how they dealt with what would surely be a tricky situation.
"The thing about it was, we couldn’t let people get into our ear and tell us we should do this," said Evans. "That’s what happened with Jon. Jon let people get into his ear, and then he started to say things and act a certain way. That seeped into the relationship. You hear [UFC president] Dana White talking about, ‘Well, they’re not really that close anyway,’ and all this stuff about our relationship, planting those seeds. He’s not getting that out of nowhere. He heard that somewhere, so who’s telling him this? I’m thinking it was either Jon or his instigating manager, Malki Kawa."
Evans felt like he knew how to handle the situation. After all, he’d done the same thing with Keith Jardine back when the two were both top light heavyweights in the UFC. Maybe he just needed to impart some of those lessons to the younger Jones, he decided. So he pulled him aside for a little heart-to-heart, he said.
"Before all this happened, I had to sit down with Jones and talk to him because I heard he’d been talking trash, saying he would whoop me. I told him, ‘Dude, people are running around saying this stuff, and I’m sure they’re not just pulling it out of nowhere.’"
Some of that, Evans figured, was bound to happen. Two top guys sparring together? It was only normal for people to ask them afterward who would win in an actual fight. It was how you chose to answer that really mattered.
"I just told him to be careful what he said. If you don’t want to fight me, then don’t even entertain the idea," Evans said. "Don’t even let it go there. Sometimes people would ask me, when I would train with Keith, who would win if we fought. I’d say, ‘Keith will.’ And then people would ask Keith the same thing and he’d say, ‘Rashad will win.’ That defused the whole situation, because then there was no going back and telling the hot secret about what you guys said. That’s a humbling thing you have to do."
The way Evans saw it, Jones did the opposite when he went on Versus and said that though he "would hate to have to fight my own teammate," he’d rather do that then get fired from the UFC. It provided just the slightest tear in the already strained team relations, Evans said, and that tear was enough to rip the whole thing apart.
Pretty soon, Evans was on TV declaring that since he was "no punk," he’d have to accept Jones’ challenge. Then he was in the cage after Jones’ win over "Shogun" Rua to claim the title, accepting the fight with his former teammate. Then he was on the arena floor, declaring himself "done" with Jackson’s gym. One thing led to another and another.
But that’s all ancient history now, as far as Evans is concerned. These days he’s relocated to Florida, and he has the "Blackzilians" team at his side. This team is "what Greg Jackson’s used to be," he said. Now that he knows he’ll have to look across the cage on fight night and see Jackson’s face in his opponent’s corner rather than his own?
"It doesn’t bother me," Evans said. "It just speaks volumes about his character."
If this storyline of broken friendships and shattered trust all seems just a little too perfect and too sound byte-friendly to possibly be real -- and, let’s be honest, at times it does -- you need only ask Evans, who will tell you in a heartbeat that while the narrative has been packaged and distributed by both the media and the UFC, as far as he’s concerned it’s "definitely genuine."
"When you train with somebody and you trust them, you accept that you’re not going to be fighting each other and you get to know them," Evans said. "There’s going to be hurt there when they violate the code that the two of you set."
And hurt, in one form or another, is what this one is all about.