ATLANTA -- A trainer can't blame a fighter for following his advice, even if it works against him.
Greg Jackson tells his fighters to adapt, to not rely on even their most reliable weapon. What happens when that backfires? At one time, Jackson was Rashad Evans' most reliable weapon, the guy whispering in his ear. The guy spotting the holes in his opponents' attacks. But no more. Now he's on the opposite side, the enemy.
Indulge me in a theory for a moment, one in which I play armchair sports psychologist. It goes like this: Evans wanted out, needed out of Team Greg Jackson, even if it was a subconscious thought in the deep recesses of his brain. It's not like he set out to lure Jon Jones into his camp and create a rivalry so he could escape. But on the other hand, when the tension became a flicker, he didn't try to blow it out. He doused more gasoline on it and set it ablaze.
In my opinion, Evans was willing to sacrifice that relationship for his own self-improvement, a trade both cold and fair. In other words, he adapted.
Why? The everyday grind of being a fighter is taxing. Everyone knows about the aches and pains. But that's just the start of it. Staying mentally sharp is even more difficult. One camp melds into the next. The drills get repetitive. The faces in front of you begin to represent safety and comfort rather than challenge. Before you know it, the drive you had has seeped away a little at a time, replaced by the routine.
That is not a championship formula. So what do you do when something is stale? You throw it out. You trash it, even if it was something once worth having.
This is a theory, and not one Evans addressed, but if you listen to him, if you hear his words, the clues are there. For example, when he was asked about what is different about him from the time he trained with Jones, this was his answer.
"It's really hard to say but for the most part I enjoy the fight a little bit more than I did before. Under Jackson, I felt like that part of me slipped away from enjoying the process of the whole fight and everything that has to do with it. Being in this new camp with my new training partners, learning new things helped me get the flame underneath me again."
Fighting the staleness of monotony is an ongoing challenge for veteran athletes. That's why coaches get fired so frequently in major team sports.
When you're young and everything is a new experience, that's not a problem. That's why Jones can sit in front of the media with a smile and say that he's enjoying every part of this process. He's 24 years old and he's only been fighting in the UFC for a little over three years. He's only been with Team Jackson for a little over two. He's only been champion a little over one. Everything is still new and exciting for him. The world is still his. It might not always be that way.
Ask Evans, who said that from the beginning, he's been a "paranoid thinker," with the feeling that everybody's always against him. He gave a deep look into his pysche while equating this Jones fight to his UFC 88 bout against Chuck Liddell, a fight that launched him into stardom and a title shot.
"There’s a lot of similarities to that," he said. "I went to that fight and doing interviews, people were interviewing me like, 'What have you done to even get a chance to fight Chuck? How can you even step into the cage with him?' That's the kind of questions I was getting. I was very invisible at the time. But it was something that I took with me. I said, 'You know what? I'm just going to go in there and just do me.' And it's the same way I feel right now. I'm going to go in there and do me. Nobody sees me winning this fight. Nobody sees me winning this fight, so I'm going to go in there and do me and see what happens."
See, that chip on his shoulder is something nearly every champions has. They all have something to prove. Even when they don't, they create a scenario that exists only to them, because they need to have that focused intensity that only comes with wanting to succeed when everybody says you can't.
Someday very soon -- probably on Saturday night at UFC 145 -- Evans and Jones will shake hands and admit they have more in common with each than they have let on for all these months. And probably not long after that, Evans will make peace with Jackson. He served his purpose when he trained Evans, and he served his purpose when he didn't. If each time resulted in bringing the best out of Evans, he did his job, even if it resulted in hurt feelings.
If Evans wins, he won't look back on this time with any regret. The lifespan of a pro athlete isn't much past the blink of an eye. In that time, difficult decisions must be made for the advancement of careers, ones that fray old friendships, ones that create conflict where there is none. Evans may not have intentionally set out to nuke his relationship with his old team, but deep down, he probably did what he felt necessary. He chose an uncharted course over familiarity. He chose movement over standing still. He followed the advice of his old coach, even if it meant going against him.