LAS VEGAS -- There was a time when Rashad Evans didn't want to do it anymore. There was a time when no matter what was in front of him, he couldn't find the motivation and passion that would fuel him for what was to come. The amazing thing is that this time wasn't years ago when Evans was struggling to make any money. It was much more recent than that. In fact, it was as he prepared for the biggest fight of his career, a grudge match with a championship on the line against his former teammate and friend, Jon Jones. While most of the fight world excitedly awaited the clash, Evans felt himself flatly going through the motions.
The problem persisted into the match itself. When Evans and Jones exchanged for the first time, he noticed Jones, who threw the first punches, was slower than usual. And then when he tried to fire off his counters, he was even slower.
"It was like one of those things where we were both happy just to have it over," he said.
It was the first time in his career he'd ever experienced the phenomenon. Though he'd previously had highly charged bouts in the past, including one with Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, this one quickly spiraled out of his control. The story line of former friends turned enemies took hold of the sport's observers and never went away. It was constant and all-encompassing. It pervaded everything in his life until there was no escaping it. Wherever he went, wherever he was recognized, the rivalry followed him.
Add in the fact that Evans barely had any time off between his bout with Phil Davis and the Jones fight, and it was just too much.
"I did feel like I was losing passion," said Evans, who called it no excuse for losing. "Having the camps back to back and having the whole back story, it was a lot to digest. It was like, 'F---, I just want to fight.' That fight wasn't about fighting. Or, leading up to it wasn't about fighting. It was about everything else. Fighting I could do all day everyday, because I love to fight. But it's the other part that gets hard to deal with at times."
That circumstance is difficult to imagine for anyone who hasn't experienced it. Here was Evans with a high-profile fight, with something tangible (a championship) and intangible (bragging rights over Jones) on the line. And he couldn't generate the passion necessary to enthusiastically hammer his way through camp?
The pressure-cooker is not something so easily understood, even to Evans. After the bout, he stepped back from his career, electing to take some time off, chase some personal interests and reassess his fight career. He thought about what had gone wrong, but he also wondered about what was to come, and namely, if he could even muster the necessary energy and motivation to continue on. While 33 seems a bit premature for retirement, Evans needed to see how badly he missed the sport when the future lied in flux. Eventually, he found that he missed it all. Missed the training and the camaraderie in the gym, and most of all, missed the prospect of fighting again.
The internal struggle is common within the athletic world. As pros make money and ascend in their field and gain widespread acceptance for their excellence, there is a tendency to grow complacent. But somewhere within that athlete, there lies the same hunger that drove them them to such an elite level.
When Evans first got to the UFC, he was fighting to prove something. It was the same story that had pushed him through his collegiate wrestling career. When he was being recruited by Division III Ithaca College, the team's coach told Evans he would never start if he chose to attend and compete for a Division I school. That was all Evans had to hear. Even though he had only one conversation with a Michigan State recruiter, he showed up at the campus at freshman orientation with no promise of a slot on the team, hellbent on proving the Ithaca coach wrong.
That's the feeling Evans is trying to summon again in a UFC 156 fight against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. He has said that the time away has done that for him. He's hungry again and fighting to again prove his critics wrong. All along the way, he's had people tell him what he couldn't do or who he couldn't be, and here he is again, in a fight of major significance, with a reward dangling in the near-distance.
If Evans wins, he may be offered a chance to move down to middleweight and fight pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva. It's a bout that Evans has said he'll entertain, and it's certainly one which will require every ounce of his passion.
"I've got a lot of respect for Nogueira, and I feel like he's a great opponent," Evans said, "but I'm rising to a level where I'm just starting to come into me and my new era of dominance."