It was just over three years ago that Rashad Evans announced his retirement from MMA. But the idea of fighting again never completely disappeared for him.
While the former UFC light heavyweight champion was happy to move on to new endeavors, including an analyst career that’s seen him work at both ESPN and FOX Sports as well as coaching fighters like ex-NFL player Greg Hardy, he never stopped training or going to the gym for his own benefit.
As time passed, Evans started to get the itch to compete again, but even when he first hinted at a return to action more than one year ago, he wanted to make sure his comeback was for the right reasons.
“What needed to happen was I needed to let some of the dust settle,” Evans explained when speaking to MMA Fighting. “I was still having a lot of residual non-clarity on what was driving my impetus to want to fight. Because it’s one thing to want to fight because I miss the sport and everything else like that. It’s another thing to want to fight because I have that hunger and that desire, that same kind of mindset that led me to become champion. There’s a difference.
“Because there’s work that you can put behind it. When I’m competing for the latter, or when I’m training for the latter, when my mindset is on, I enjoy doing it so I enjoy the grind of it, then I don’t mind doing the grunt work. Grunt work is where you grow. If I’m just doing barely enough to cover the practices to say I’m in shape, then I’m not going to reach that upper echelon of skill set that I have. I need to be able to drive that extra percentile out of myself and the best way to do that is just mentally being dialed in and mentally wanting to fight for the right reasons.”
During the global pandemic over the past year, Evans was able to gain some necessary perspective when it came to his career and the opportunity to fight again.
While he can admit that his days competing for championships are probably over, that doesn’t mean he can’t still fight at a very high level and have fun doing something he loves so much.
“I know my fighting days are behind me for the large part, but I would just love to go out there and put the gloves on a few more times just to enjoy myself and really end the sport the way that I want to end the sport,” Evans said.
“I felt as if my last few fights I was competing, I was there, but I really wasn’t there to compete. I was just going through the motions. If I can have a few more fights where I just go in there and just fight from my heart, then I can die a happy man.”
Of course, Evans has personally witnessed plenty of horror stories regarding fighters returning from retirement for financial reasons, or just because they can’t seem to walk away from the rush that comes along with that kind of competition.
Thanks to the career he built outside the cage, he doesn’t need to come back for money, and there’s a bigger driving force behind this return than just the need to prove something to himself by fighting again.
“I wanted to be able to have this chance to compete again and coming from that place where it’s not that pressure,” Evans said. “It’s not, ‘Oh I have to win this fight or I’m not going to be able to eat or feed my family,’ and things like that. Just coming from a place of fighting where fighting was fun. Fighting didn’t always use to be such a stressful thing. Fighting became stressful when a lot of money came around and titles and all these different expectations came around and then it became a lot harder for me to compete the way I can compete.
“But now I’m in a place right now, I’ve settled into my after fight career and I’ve got a few things going outside of fighting so fighting is not the only thing. It’s not the most important thing because I have other things in my life that I can make a living at. Now fighting just goes back to the place where it originally started, which is just for fun.”
Because he’s a UFC Hall of Famer, Evans coming back to MMA would seem like the most obvious choice, but that’s not the case with this return from retirement. Instead, the 41-year-old veteran wants to test himself in the boxing ring, which was actually his first passion when it came to combat sports.
“I started out with boxing – boxing was my first love,” Evans said. “I started out with boxing when I was 13, 14 years old going to the boxing club in Niagara Falls, N.Y., trained by [Calvin] ‘Pop’ Porter. I was into boxing back then, but then I got out of it with wrestling and everything like that. Now I’m in a stage where MMA is a brutally hard sport. It takes a lot to be able to fight on that aspect. Can I do MMA? I’m sure I can do MMA, but I don’t know if I’ll be at the highest level based on everything that it encompasses, and I don’t know if I want to put my body through an MMA match.
“When it came to competing, I wanted it to be fun. I wanted it to be something different and challenging and there’s nothing like the sweet science of boxing.”
Part of the interest Evans had in exploring a boxing match was also driven by the recent rise of fights involving YouTube celebrities like Jake and Logan Paul as well as high profile exhibitions like those featuring legends of the sport such as Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr.
Like many professional fighters, Evans initially discounted people like the Paul brothers as nothing more than a novelty act cashing in on their own celebrity but he’s admittedly been impressed by what he’s seen out of them in recent performances.
“At first when it first started happening, I was like oh my gosh, what is this, it’s a mockery of the sport,” Evans said. “But then it took a while for me to get but once I got it, I got it. I understood as far as when it comes down to it, these guys, Jake Paul, Logan Paul, these guys have a huge following and they’ve been following since they were knee high on Disney. So they’ve loved these guys. Watching these guys compete and reach the level that they’re able to reach with boxing is amazing for them. It’s everything for them.
“I’m going to be honest, at first I thought these guys were going to go in there and not take the sport serious and just clown around and just do what they do, be a prankster about it. But they took it serious. They actually look like athletes. They look pretty good. Jake Paul looked pretty tough to be honest. Logan looked pretty decent in his last fight, too. They’re showing like they’ve got a lot of potential and I really like what they’re doing by fighting guys who are fighters but at the same time aren’t boxing guys and it gives them a chance to have somewhat a chance in the fight. It makes it interesting.”
While Jake Paul already has his next fight booked against former UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley in August, his brother Logan is still basking in the glory of going eight rounds with Floyd Mayweather in a boxing exhibition promoted by Showtime.
Without another opponent on the horizon, Evans hopes that Logan Paul is paying attention to his return, because he believes that would be the most compelling fight available to him right now.
“I think I am the fight for Logan Paul,” Evans said. “If Logan Paul is serious about fighting then he’ll fight me. If he wants to play around he can fight somebody else. But if he really wants to fight, he wants to really grow himself, then he’ll fight me.”
As much as some fighters want to discount the Paul brothers as nothing more than rank amateurs, Evans promises he won’t make that mistake if he gets the chance to step into the ring with one of them.
Evans has seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows throughout his own career, and one of the most important lessons learned was never underestimating an opponent no matter how much you expect to win.
That same exact attitude would carry him into a potential fight with Paul.
“He’s a young guy, he’s got a lot of physical tools and I want to see how I match up with that,” Evans said. “I think it would be a fight that fans would want to see. They’ve seen him with Floyd Mayweather. They’ve seen he’s got a little bit of squabble, he can hang in there. He hung in there with the champ. The champ wasn’t able to get him out of there.
“Let’s see what he’s really about. I think his next fight has to be what he’s about. It can’t just be about surviving. He’s really got to go out there and try to put it on somebody. He doesn’t want to keep fighting all these guys, all these legit boxers who’s got all these skills. He might as well try his hand with me.”