Prior knowledge helps Jones, Evans at UFC 145http://www.usatoday.com/sports/mma/post/2012-04-19/familiarity-helps-jones-evans-at-ufc-145/676250/1
ATLANTA -- The rift between former teammates Jon Jones and Rashad Evans fuels the Ultimate Fighting Championship's latest storyline, but the quality of the bout itself might come down to their familiarity.
"He already knows what Jon does," says one of Evans' main coaches, Mike Van Arsdale. "He's familiar with Jon. Anytime you see teammates fighting, it's way better than a normal fight. … Some of your best fights are in the practice room in MMA."
Saturday's main event at UFC 145 (8 p.m. ET, FX; 10 p.m. ET, pay-per-view) will mark the culmination of a feud brewing for more than a year. When light-heavyweight champion Jones and ex-champ Evans enter the cage in Atlanta, they'll do so with more than a year of angry words preceding them.
Evans has been UFC's 205-pound champion before, but the same holds true of Jones' last three victims. This time will be different because the combatants have added knowledge from their days training together at the Albuquerque camp run by coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn.
"We know which way his head is going to lean when he flinches," Jones says of Evans. "We know his favorite guard passes. We know what his work ethic was. We know what gets him tired. We know eeeeverything about him. Absolutely everything."
The last five years have seen Evans compile a formidable record that includes wins against ex-titleholders Jackson, Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin, and most recently a one-sided decision victory against No. 6 Phil Davis in January. If not for a knee injury that kept him from a title fight last year — paving the way for Jones — Evans might be the 205-pound champion right now.
But no one currently fighting has equalled Jones' stretch of UFC dominance of the past 15 months.
Not counting Evans, five fighters on UFC's active roster held the 205-pound title before Jones. Last year he knocked out or choked out three of them in Mauricio Rua, Lyoto Machida and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson; he also submitted prospect Ryan Bader. All four remain in the top eight of the USA TODAY/SB Nation consensus rankings for light heavyweights.
Jones' success at a young age, accomodating public demeanor and ease in front of the camera make it easy for UFC for promote him as one of its biggest stars even though he's only 24. Even Evans doesn't question the organization's decision to push Jones into the forefront.
"I think it's justified," Evans says. "He went in there and he had a great year. … He looks good. He's got the right image and he's got an exciting fight style, so why not?"
That concession doesn't mean he respects Jones as a human being. Evans has been lashing out at the champion for more than a year. He paints Jones as a backstabbing phony for expressing a willingness to fight teammates if UFC insisted.
"Jon Jones, he's so fake, it makes no sense," Evans says. "The person that everybody thinks Jon Jones would be could not be more opposite than the person that he truly is in life."
The champion views himself as a multifaceted person. Although he and Evans were teammates, they did not spend a lot of time together, Jones said.
"I'm a person with a lot of personality, a lot of character," he says. "Rashad doesn't know me well enough to call me fake. … It's just a way of him trying to distract my energy. Just trying to distract my attention to focus on maybe my personality or something, and not focus in on his technique and the actual fight."
The last man to defend the light-heavyweight belt four times knows the value of an angry rivalry with an ex-comrade. Chuck Liddell knocked out former training partner Tito Ortiz in 2004 and 2006; the second fight set a record for UFC pay-per-view buys at the time.
Liddell confirmed his status as UFC's biggest star by disposing of Ortiz, who built up bad blood between them by taunting him mercilessly before their bouts.
"It makes a bigger impact," Liddell said. "Everybody needs to have someone to push them up to that next level."
Proteges of Jackson and Winkeljohn previously vowed never to fight each other under any circumstance, says Evans, who left the team last year when Jones won the championship. Evans now trains in South Florida with several highly regarded fighters, but no prominent light heavyweights.
He blames Jackson for creating the dilemma by allowing Jones to join the squad in 2009 despite Evans' initial qualms about adding another talented light heavyweight.
"To turn your back and to go against the grain on people who made you who you really are — to me, that's just low," says Evans, who joined the Albuquerque gym after winning The Ultimate Fighter reality show in 2005. "If it came down to holding it down and being who he was for the team, then the situation never exist. He would have never brought Jon Jones on."
Although Jackson does not view the addition of Jones as a bad thing, the coach faults himself for lacking a formal process for dealing with potential title fights between teammates.
"I can't stand it, honestly," Jackson says. "The position is weird. …What got me into the whole Rashad Evans-Jon Jones problem in the first place, is my reluctance to kind of deal with that, and now I have to."
After refraining for several months, Jackson recently agreed to work in Jones' corner on Saturday.
"It's not so much I'm leaning towards Jon Jones as I'm leaning toward the team," Jackson says.. "That notion of being (part of) something special and different and tight, I think that has value and importance, and that's kind of what's influencing me right now."
Noting that he did not want to fight his training partner unless ordered to do so by UFC, Jones wonders if Evans simply needed to find reason to fight for the belt after losing his title shot. UFC only offered Jones the March 2011 championship fight only because Evans hurt his knee while training for the bout.
Accounts of of Evans' departure from the Albuquerque camp has been retold so much over the past year that they've taken on a cathartic value, Jones says.
"It's funny, because the more you hear the story and the more we all go at it and talk about the coaches and try to figure out who's telling the truth and what side is most legit, it's almost therapeutic for everybody. So I think this fight will be like the last counseling session for the whole situation."
Jones views Evans as diminished these days. In the champion's view, Evans seems slower and less explosive than he was a few years ago, when he could plant all his opponents with double-leg takedowns.
"I just watch the young Rashad and I see so much the speed and the constant movement and the double leg that used to be so powerful," Jones says. "Now I just see a very slow (re)gression. I see somebody who's getting older, getting more comfortable."
Wins against Ortiz and Davis over the last 12 months do not impress Jones because of where they are in their careers. Ortiz plans to retire after one more bout, and Davis only started fighting three-and-a-half years ago.
"He couldn't even finish Phil Davis," Jones says. "I realized in that fight, he (Rashad) didn't execute one double-leg takedown. Double leg used to be his bread and butter. … I just watch the young Rashad and I see so much the speed and the constant movement and the double leg that used to be so powerful. Now I just see a very slow (re)gression. I see somebody who's getting older, getting more comfortable."
Making judgements based on the January victory against Davis would be a mistake because Evans went into that fight with three broken ribs and other injuries, Van Arsdale says.
On the other hand, Evans' coach views most of Jones' 2011 victories as products of opponents' anxiety. "Those guys were sitting ducks," Van Arsdale says. "Guys were scared. Guys didn't want to fight."
Despite the hype surrounding this weekend's bout, Evans has been treating the fight with the same level of seriousness as any other bout, his coach says.
"If you make it anything extraordinary, guess what? You just lost," Van Arsdale says. "Jon Jones isn't buying into the hype of it and neither is Rashad, because it's normal. Normal training and normal daily practice. As soon as you start making a big deal of anything, you just ruined yourself."
Perhaps that's why both fighters kept a level, almost amiable tone at the final pre-fight press conference this week.
"I've had a year to deal with the situation," Evans says. "I've made my peace in a lot of ways with the situation. I'm not really that emotionally invested in it any more."
Past appearances together saw them arguing, with Evans often interrupting Jones. But Wednesday's presser saw both men sitting quietly, occasionally agreeing with each other and declining openings to directly criticize each other one more time.
"It's truly not personal with me," Jones says. "There's a lot of things that have been said that was personal, but when it comes to the actual game, it's still a game that we play. … The pre-fight hype and all that has nothing to do with the game."