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After knee injury and setbacks, Rashad Evans says he drew inspiration from Dominick Cruz

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Rashad Evans has competed just once in the last two-and-a-half years, and that one performance wasn’t particularly stirring. Evans, who blew out his knee ahead of his scheduled fight against Daniel Cormier at UFC 170, returned after a nearly two-year absence against Ryan Bader at UFC 192 in Houston this past October, and dropped a listless decision.

Heading into his next bout — a co-main event against Glover Teixeira at UFC on FOX 19 in Tampa on April 16 — "Suga" says he just didn’t feel like himself in there again Bader, and there were plenty of factors that played into that.

"I think it was a little bit the layoff, but for the most part I don’t think I was ready to step into the cage as far as having the trust in my knee that I need to have," Evans said during an interview on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour. "I went out there and I was hoping that I could return to my old movement. My movement was a problem for me. Finding my timing was a problem for me, and that had to do with how I structured my training camp. My main goal was just to make it through camp, and I wasn’t training with the team like I really needed to, and I was having lot of individualized training."

The 36-year-old Evans, who last scored a win in the Octagon at UFC 167 against Chael Sonnen in 2013, said that he may have erred on the side of caution in training for Bader, rather than ramping up the intensity with his fight team at the Blackzilians.

It didn’t translate on fight night.

"It wasn’t the kind of rounds that I needed to get in," he told Ariel Helwani. "In order to make sure that you’re in fight shape, you’ve got to fight. You’ve got to grind. You’ve got to be in there making it ugly, getting it dirty. And not really too much worrying about getting hurt for the most part in training.

"I was going through each training camp session trying not to get hurt. And it was a little bit too pampered. I can’t have a training camp too pampered because if I’m going to win, it’s got to be gritty, it’s got to be grinding, it’s got to be ugly, and that only happens when I train that way."

Evans was scheduled to fight Alexander Gustafsson in January 2015, but realized he wouldn’t quite be ready while convalescing his knee. When the UFC rebooked him against Teixeira for UFC Fight Night 61, it was Teixeira who had to pull out with a knee injury. Then the news came down that Evans would need to undergo a second knee surgery, as his body didn’t accept the cadaver tendon from the first.

It was a very similar setback to what his fellow FOX analyst Dominick Cruz went through while trying to come back from his own knee injuries. After two ACL surgeries on one knee -- and then another surgery on the other -- Cruz made a triumphant return in January against then-bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw to reclaim his title.

Evans said he was inspired by what Cruz did, especially since it was so familiar to his own.

"It sure did, and I’m so inspired by Dominick," he said. "He’s such a great inspiration for me just being able to come back how he did, it was one of those things that made me believe in the fact that, yeah, I have been out. Yeah, I have had a long road when it comes to this injury, but at the end of the day it’s not the end of the road. Dominick Cruz came back and just showed what determination, focus and being very meticulous about a good training schedule can do for you. And I’m forever a student because of that, and I’m still trying to get there."

Though some took his last fight with Bader as a sign that he was nearing the end of his career, Evans doesn’t see it that way — even if he is 36 years old.

"I don’t really feel 36 -- I don’t really feel 36 at all," he said. "And I don’t know how long I want to do it for. I definitely don’t want to be one of those fighters who fights for too long and then somebody has to have that awkward retirement conversation that they don’t want to hear. I don’t want that.

"But I want to be able to quit when I feel like I’m done, and ideally I’d like to quit after I had a good performance in the cage. But you never know when that final bell is going to sound. I got my final bell sounding not being able to return to fighting with the knee injury, something that happened in practice. And you know the dream is to go out there and go out on your shield and feel like that triumph you had the in cage is one last time.

"That’s what you really, really want — to go out like GSP with a belt in hand. That’s what you really want, and I hope that’s for me. But I’m searching for that, and however long that takes me, I’ll get that. But if my desire to pursue that goes further than anything else, then I’ll be done."

Evans said that one way or another his fight with Teixeira won’t be the end. One of the reasons for that is that he still feels like a student of the game, learning under his coaches in Boca Raton, Henri Hooft and Greg Jones.

And his latest lesson was to not pamper himself in training for his next fight, which was originally supposed to be against Mauricio Rua. Even though now it’s Teixeira, Evans (19-4-1) said people can expect to see the "Suga" of old.

The one who donned the singlet.

"There’s no secret about it — when I don’t wrestle, I don’t win," he said. "That’s just the truth of the matter. When I don’t wrestle, I don’t win. So I need to get back to my wrestling, and I need to start getting back to the things that make me who I am. There’s so many things that you can learn as a mixed martial artist and being such a student of the game, it’s tempting to want to put everything into your bread basket. But at the end of the day, when you get away got you to where you are, then you lose a big piece of what makes you successful, and I think I just need to get back to what makes me successful."

As for ever facing "Shogun" at this point — a fight that has been made twice and fallen through both times — Evans thinks that ship has sailed.

"I just kind of feel like it’s not going to happen, and that’s kind of unfortunate," he said. "It kind of feels like our stars are never aligned. I guess that it would have been a good fight. It’s something that I always think about, if I ever got the chance to match up with Shogun. But I heard that he hurt his knee pretty bad, and he probably won’t return for a few months – I think the next time might be like in Brazil or something. So I guess if he wants to retire it’ll probably be a great time to do it then."

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