Perhaps it wasn't the dominant statement he hoped to make, but Rashad Evans managed a UFC 108 win over Thiago Silva in a mature performance featuring a varied game plan that is important for the major dividends it can pay down the road.
Evans returned to his wrestling roots and controlled Silva for most of the opening two rounds, connecting on seven of 11 takedown tries in putting the explosive Brazilian striker in a place he didn't want to be: on his back.
That might not seem like a major shock; Evans first came to prominence as a guy who was almost exclusively a wrestler. But over time, he has become largely reliant on the standup game. In his three fights prior to facing off with Silva, he had tried just one takedown in nearly 30 minutes of action.
By then, he'd done almost a complete 180-degree turn on fighting philosophy.
Reverting to what made him so successful is a welcome change for Evans, if not the fans, who did direct some seemingly unfair boos at his performance. But why shouldn't he capitalize on a major advantage he'll have in a lot of matchups going forward? It simply makes sense.
"I wanted to mix it up and throw the hands, but my corner warned me against that," Evans said after the bout. "They said, 'Fight a smart fight.' Systematically break him down and take the advantages when you have them, but for the most part, don't get into those battles where it's Russian roulette and whoever lands the first punch wins."
Taking extra risks out of a game plan is a mature decision that can add extra years to a fighter's career as well as create success. Evans' friend and sometimes training partner Georges St. Pierre has perfected the same strategy of matching his strengths against his opponent's weaknesses. It appears to be a lesson well learned.
Though the wrestling-first plan is sometimes unpopular -- not everyone can batter an opponent on the ground as ruthlessly as St. Pierre does -- Evans likely hopes it will pay further dividends going forward as he wades towards his grudge match with Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and a potential light-heavyweight championship shot against the Lyoto Machida – Mauricio "Shogun" Rua winner.
Why wouldn't he want to put the steel-fisted Jackson on his back, where he has struggled at times, including in the UFC 86 title bout he lost to Forrest Griffin? And wouldn't he give either Machida or Rua another dimension to think about if he was consistently threatening takedowns? You generally want to bring as many weapons as you can to a fight, and wrestling was one gun he holstered for no apparent reason, and for far too long.
The strategy paid immediate dividends in winning the match with Silva, not only for influencing the judges' scorecards, but for its underrated effect on the critical third round.
During that final frenzy of action, Silva caught Evans and hurt him, but instead of going in for the finish, Silva backed off to catch his breath. Think defending 11 takedown tries and working his way up to his feet over and over had anything to do with Silva's exhaustion at the end?
"If he can get me to lose my head, as the saying goes, 'You lose your head and your ass goes with it,'" Evans said. "You can't fault him for trying to get me out of my element to try to capitalize on something he needed. He lost two rounds so he needed to make something happen in the third and he was hoping if he got me to open up a little bit, he could catch me."
Evans didn't walk away from the cage looking thrilled about the win, but he has to consider himself a work in progress again. Fighting isn't always physical; it's mental too, and his recognition that his previous style may not be the best long-term solution for his career proves that he's maturing and putting it all together.