"Fighting just used to come so easy, so natural. Now I feel I'm fighting against myself."
That was Rashad Evans, near tears, during a postfight interview on FOX Sports 1 on Saturday night, not long after Glover Teixeira had knocked him cold in under two minutes in the main event of UFC on FOX 19 in Tampa.
It's as honest a self-assessment as you'll ever get from a fighter who is grappling with the notion he just might have hit the downside of his career.
Most will go into a state of denial and tell themselves that with a tweak here and a tweak there, they'll be right back to where they used to be. But Evans has long been one of the most thoughtful, analytical, intelligent fighters in the game, so it's not surprising he'd be so honest with himself after one of his worst moments.
Which makes what seems to be the acceleration of Evans' decline all the more painful to follow.
It's one thing to watch former greats in other sports hit the downside. An All-Star slugger struggles to hit .200, a basketball player will a killer jumper misses shots he used to hit with ease. But the only damage that occurs is to their pride.
It's something else entirely with fighting. An elite tennis player doesn't have an opponent trying to separate him from consciousness. A fighter does.
For every Mark Munoz, who wins a thrilling final match in his homeland and retires to a thunderous standing ovation, there seems to be dozens who don't get the hint their time is up until they've been knocked out once too often.
And while this was actually Evans' first stoppage loss since Lyoto Machida took his UFC light heavyweight title in 2009, there was just something about the way he was finished by Teixeira that seems to portend more of the same in the future, as if the script was being flipped on Evans' 2008 knockout of Chuck Liddell.
Evans is 2-4 in his past six fights and has been through long stretches of inactivity due to injuries. He turns 37 in September.
It's all the more difficult to watch the decline when it's someone worthy of admiration. Evans has never quite gotten enough credit for what he's brought to the sport. It's not just his accomplishments in the cage, which include winning The Ultimate Fighter 2 at heavyweight and winning the UFC light heavyweight title. Evans has always been accessible to fans, a go-to quote for the media, and he has been a natural as a studio analyst.
He's still got plenty to give the sport outside the cage, both in that analyst role and as a potential trainer. He also seems a candidate for the type of former-fighter UFC ambassador-type position the company creates for fighters who have been good soldiers.
"When you're at this point right now, you've just got to reevaluate everything," Evans said. "I don't want to lose hope - I don't want to lose heart in fighting, because it's what I like to do. But at the end of the day, something's got to change."
Most likely, Evans will decide to return. Most fighters do. I, for one, would be entirely fine with watching Evans call it a day. He's had a full and distinguished career. He's relatively healthy and has his mental faculties. Evans' loss to Teixeira sure seemed like one of those inexorable career changers. It's Evans' call, obviously, but I have no desire to see him on the wrong end of three or four more nights like Saturday night before he calls it quits.
UFC on FOX 19 Quotes
"I don't want to lose hope, I don't want to lose heart in fighting because it's what I like to do and I'm at a low right now," Evans said. "But at the end of the day something's gotta change, I gotta do something. It's embarrassing, it's sad, but, welcome to being a fighter." --Evans
"Anthony Johnson's probably going to spend the whole year doing nothing. So I like, give him a job, you know?" -- Glover Teixeira tries to set up a date with "Rumble."
"Right now, I do want a little bit of a break to enjoy the fight world as a fan, just for a second. I'll be all fired up and ready to get back in there...but right now, it's about having fun just for a little bit." -- Rose Namajunas on what's next after her win over Tecia Torres
"I think if you want to make very smart decision for New York. In New York, living couple million people who speak Russian. I am famous in New York, I think," -- Khabib Nurmagomedov wants to fight a Madison Square Garden
(Note: That Evans essay was such a bummer to write that I'm going all thumbs up on the stock report)
Khabib Nurmagomedov: In and of itself, beating overmatched late sub Darrell Horcher obviously doesn't mean much for Nurmy in the pecking order. But simply getting back into the cage, finally, after being out two years to the week, was a joy in and of itself. He's 23-0, he still looks like a ruthless killing machine, and, oh yeah, that last fight two years ago was a win over current 155-pound champion Rafael dos Anjos. At the postfight press conference, Nurmagomedov smartly angled to get on the November Madison Square Garden card, pointing out the area's strong Russian population. "The Eagle" has still got it.
Rose Namajunas and Tecia Torres: Certain fights can elevate both the winner and the loser. That was the case in Saturday's strawweight bout, where a late takedown was likely the difference with the judges in Namajunas's 29-28, across-the-board win over Torres. The duo was thrust into the co-main event spot on network television due to all the turmoil on the card, and they delivered an exciting, back-and-forth battle on the big stage. Namajunas continued to demonstrate measurable progress, while Torres was an engaging foe in losing a bout that was more exciting than most of her recent wins. While neither Namajunas nor Torres quite look ready for a title shot, both helped their causes as ones to watch at 115 pounds.
Michael Chiesa: I can't quite put my finger on why Chiesa hasn't clicked with fans on a star level yet, but it doesn't have anything to do with his fighting ability. Chiesa has quite simply become one of the most consistently exciting performers in the sport, one who has stared down one fellow submission ace after another and made them tap. Chiesa's inspired second round comeback against Beneil Dariush was his fifth win in his past six fights, and he's earned four postfight bonuses in that stretch. Maybe one of these days he'll earn a fan following to match his accomplishments.
John Dodson: Dodson somehow managed to combine a sprinting drill with a fight on Saturday, as "The Magician" made a memorable return to the bantamweight division. An overwhelming blitz of speed and power was too much for veteran Manny Gamburyan to handle, as Dodson blitzed his way to a quick TKO win. It's not like Dodson was a slouch at 125 pounds -- his only losses were a pair to Demetrious Johnson -- but Dodson looked like someone ready to jump right into the top mix in the division in which he once won The Ultimate Fighter.
Santiago Ponzinibbio: The Argentinian American Top Team fighter by way of Brazil hasn't been handed many gimmes and doesn't seem one to bluster his way into the spotlight. Rather, he's drawn attention the old-fashioned way, winning four out of five UFC bouts, three of them by way of finish. This of course includes his first-round TKO victory Saturday over the always-tough Court McGee. If nothing else, Ponzinibbio, a former TUF: Brazil 2 competitor, has earned the right to take a jump up in competition level.
Referee James Warring seemed like he wasn't going to be satisfied until Nurmagomedov ripped off Horcher's head and handed it to him on a platter, as Warring took an uncomfortably long time waving off their fight. That was about the only glitch of note from an officiating standpoint, though, as the fights which went to decisions went the right way and the referees were by and large invisible, which means they were doing their job.
Since there's no other category to neatly place this, thumbs up to McGee, who celebrated 10 years of sobriety Saturday, having kicked a heroin addiction. That's no small accomplishment in a business as roughhouse as MMA. Here's hoping McGee didn't get too low after his loss to Ponzinibbio, because he's winning a battle far more important than any fight in a cage.
Fight I'd like to see next: Take your pick
So many potentially interesting fights can be made coming out of Saturday's card. A rejuvenated Teixeira testing himself against Anthony Johnson, which is the fight Teixeira seems to want, seems like something White would be okay with, and promises serious bang for your buck. Nurmagomedov wants the winner of RDA vs. Alvarez; White hinted the canceled Tony Ferguson fight could be next, and it's hard for fans to lose in either scenario. But for some reason, I feel like I'm most interested in a potential rematch between Dodson and T.J. Dillashaw. Dillashaw's long dismissed it as a fluke. Dodson looked like a guy who can hang with anyone at 135. Dillashaw's presently on the outside looking in at the title picture. So why not make the fight?
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