The first time Rashad Evans marched into Atlanta, he was a sizable underdog trying to make a legacy for himself. Next time he does, he'll again be a sizable underdog, this time trying to seal a legacy as a two-time UFC light-heavyweight champion.
Nearly a year after the long-simmering grudge between Evans and Jones began, there's finally an end game, UFC 145 in April. But until then, expect salvos to be fired and returned. A full two months before the two meet in the cage, they met at a spot overlooking downtown Atlanta, with Evans reasserting his belief that his previous work with Jones would give him the advantage in their matchup, and the champion admitting that the broken friendship and personal feelings would play a motivational role in his training.
"I think that my opponent will be in my head this fight," he said. "And I want him in my head because I realize when people are in my head, it brings out the best in me, and that’s what I’m prepared to show."
The 24-year-old has seen his star rise over the last year following a brilliant stretch that saw him win four times in 2011, including three finishes over former UFC champions.
But it was a question of whether Jones could finish Evans within one round that led to the most animated exchange between the two fighters. It started innocently enough from Jones.
"I’m going to be cliche and say I’m going to go out there with great intentions and train really hard and just have fun," he said. "I realize when I have fun great things happen. Magical things happen."
But as he finished his thought, Evans interjected, saying "What do you really think, though?"
"You remember what I told you," Jones said.
"I remember what you told me, but I remember you didn’t mean it," Evans said.
Some rowdy fans in the crowd yelled out, asking Evans what Jones said, and Evans mimicked Jones nervously saying, "Rashad, I’m going to be the first one to finish you in the first round…," stuttering his way throughout the less-than-flattering imitation.
That brought laughs from the audience, and even got a chuckle from UFC president Dana White. Jones portrayed the hint of a smile, but wasn't quite so amused.
"I remember being here and Rampage was doing the same thing, so …," Jones said, letting his words trail off and throwing his hands up, letting the memory of his fourth-round submission win over Jackson finish his thought.
The easy rapport the two shared mostly replaced by acrimony, the two did share a couple of lighter moments throughout. But most of the time, it was a case of one answering a question, and the other rebutting the answer as though they were debating.
Jones smiled throughout the 30-minute press conference, although the two didn't look each other in the eye during a post-event staredown photo opportunity or share a handshake at its conclusion. Evans was clearly the crowd favorite of the two, with one fan routinely yelling out support to the point where Evans adopted him as his "hype man."
That's been par for the course for Jones, who has watched his popularity rating increase right alongside his list of detractors, one of MMA's most beloved and hated at the same time. That's a typical symptom of the overnight superstar, and that's certainly what Jones has become, winning the title in what is traditionally MMA's most competitive division within three years of taking up the sport. But even with all the proclamations about Jones as MMA's present and future, Evans wouldn't give in, anointing himself a "spoiler" on April 21.
"There’s been so many people like him that’s been ‘the one,’" he said. "But that’s the secret: there is no ‘one.’ Anybody can lose any given day, and he’s going to find that out."
The back and forth about who knows more about the other from their days training together has been discussed ad nauseam, and will continue to be rehashed for another two months until they're finally standing across the cage from each other. Then we'll get our answer.
But for now, we're left with the same thing we've had for the last year, loaded words going back and forth, just setting the stage for what's to come. As for what might be afterward, well, the two opened a window on that when a fan innocently asked if the two would be able share a smile or handshake after going five hard rounds in April.
It was as if they didn't even hear the question.
"This fight won't go five rounds," Evans said.
"Mark his words," Jones said.
And so it goes, a blood feud in need of a conclusion, a money rivalry to end in the place where for Evans, it all really began.