NEW YORK -- All the work had been done. He'd gone through his two-month camp, made the cross-country flight to Las Vegas and sat in his locker room, preparing to go out before the world. It was supposed to be showtime. He warmed up and walked out to the cage and looked across at his opponent. He heard the referee intone him to fight.
"It was just weird because I didn’t feel anything. I didn't feel anything at all," Rashad Evans said on Monday, before flying to Winnipeg, the site of this weekend's UFC 161. "I felt nothing. I felt blank. That never happened to me before. I was always able to feel something. But I couldn’t even feel anything. I couldn’t feel nervous. I couldn't feel."
That was Evans talking about his last fight, a February matchup with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. But, he also admitted, in his bout before that against Jon Jones, he had not quite been himself, either.
"Disconnected" was the precise word that he used to describe the foreign phenomenon he experienced, the one separating him from the sensory world surrounding him. You've heard of an athlete being in "the zone"? This is the exact opposite, a purgatory from which there is no escape, in which there are no impactful actions or movements.
This is what he's trying to come back from now, with an all-time great, Dan Henderson waiting on the other side. On Saturday night, in the main event, Evans isn't just fighting Hendo and the mother of all right hands. He's also fighting himself, to regain his foothold as an elite, to rediscover the confidence and the fire that carried him to a UFC light heavyweight championship in 2008. That's obvious to everybody who watches him. Even his mother.
Evans' mom Shirley has become a quasi-celebrity in the MMA world, partly for the impressions of her that her son does. Most of the time, he impersonates her imparting her unique fight wisdom. Asked what advice she offered for this fight, he goes right into it, but her brief guidance boils down to her final words: "Bring some of that swag back."
But is it quite that simple? We like to think that there is an imaginary force field that keeps personal problems away from the professional arena of competition, some magical earphones that tune out the noise and static. That's a myth. For Evans, for a time, it was downright impossible to feel like a success in his professional life when his personal life was crumbling around him.
In early 2012, Evans and his wife divorced. The child of a broken home himself, Evans didn't take the split lightly.
"When you go through a thing like divorce and dealing with all of that, I felt like a failure in life," he said. "I felt like I failed my kids and I failed a lot of things. It took a lot for me mentally to put myself in a place where I was able to compete. I had to forgive myself and let myself know it was OK that things didn't work out, and move on from that. It was definitely something that I had to put my mind to and focus on and do."
Some people will chalk this up as an excuse. Evans is smart enough to know that, but he is nothing if not candid; he can't stop himself from offering up his reality whether it's joyful or melancholy. And at the time, everything was new and raw. He had switched gyms, he had moved to a different part of the country, and he was apart from his family for the first time. It was all foreign. He tried to fake his way through it, tried to shut his mouth and plow forward. But the tightly wound ball unravels the quickest, and before long, Evans was struggling in a way that he never had.
When you're a young kid starting out in the fight business, the fire burns brightly, especially when you come from a place of struggle as Evans had. As a child, he'd had his heat turned off at times, electricity at others, as his mom tried to keep up with bills. He grew up wanting what the other, better-off kids had. Even before he came into the UFC, he was working security at a hospital. He often had to wheel dead bodies to the morgue, and as he did so, he'd wonder what kind of life those people had. Had they chased their dreams? Had they accomplished anything?
As a young man with little to his name, that was plenty of fuel for motivation. He could still remember the feeling of the cold air in his home, could close his eyes and pace the hospital walkways. But now, years later, time has dulled those memories, and the money he's made had given him all those things he'd wanted as a youth and then some. He had those things, so what was his motivation now?
"I thought a lot about what happened," he said. "I've harnessed the fight inside me. I've done the things that bring out the fight inside of me. Everybody has those things that make them fight, those triggers and stuff. For me, I’ve been working a lot on what makes me fight. What's my motivating factor and those things. I’ve been all through camp steady working to improve my triggers so the minute I decide to fight, I’m going to be ready to fight. I’ll be able to pull and draw from that. For me it’s about waking up early in the morning and going for my morning runs, like 5 in the morning. Doing my heavy bag work in the garage, or doing a little extra work. Sitting and thinking about the fight, writing down what I’m going to do, different attacks. It's to harness the fight inside of me and in my mind."
Evans feels in some ways he won't have a choice but to fight. He knows it's good to feel scared, and Henderson certainly brings something to have fear in. Evans acknowledges that Henderson is one of the best fighters the U.S. has ever produced. He admires him and admits he's dangerous. Someone's going to get knocked out, he says. It's just not going to be him, not when he still has things he wants to do. At 33 years old, Evans can't see the end nearing. Not yet, despite the fact that he once brought up the possibility of retirement.
To his core, he says, he still identifies himself as a fighter. Even though he has a FUEL TV gig to fall back on, even though he made the money he wanted as a child, the structure of a fight camp is still the purpose he desires. The label of being a fighter is still necessary to him. Perhaps in his changing world, now more than ever.
As a kid, he was a Mike Tyson fan, and like millions, hung on every moment of Tyson's fights, knowing something jaw-dropping was going to happen. Something that drew his eyes like magnets. Those are the same types of moments he wants to produce now. As an adult, he got to meet Tyson. They didn't talk about fighting, but about life. Tyson is a man who's lived through things and gained a lot of wisdom along the way, wisdom that Evans still thinks about.
Evans wants to be champion again. He's not afraid to say it. But more than that, he wants to create memorable moments. He wants to throw himself into the best matchups with the most dangerous people. He wants to feel the heat of the fire again.
"Life in general, sometimes you take a few steps back just to go further than you would have before," he said. "It’s hard to find the perspective of why you had the setbacks and failures, but it happens. Once you’re able to accept it, to internalize it and get a feel for what happened, then you’re able to move past it and maybe go further and project yourself further than you would have if you didn't. I'm not going to put myself in a box and say I have to win. I want to win, I’m going to win, and inside of me, I want to go out there and perform and put on a great show for myself and the fans. But for the most part, I don’t feel the pressure."