Love and hate, it’s often said, are closely related, both fueled by passion. And when a love is betrayed, there can be no apathetic middle ground to linger in before love slips straight to hate.
So when ex-training partners and former close friends Jon Jones and Rashad Evans step into the Octagon in Atlanta Saturday night in UFC 145, there will be an electricity of emotions as those first punches are thrown in Jones’ third defense of his light heavyweight title.
When the opponents of one of the most anticipated UFC fights in recent memory talk about each other, there’s vitriol in the air. And it doesn’t feel like inauthentic hype, either. It won’t be like so many WWE fights where blood feuds are written into the script. And it won’t be like so many UFC cards where an allegedly passion-fueled rivalry seems stilted and forced, with airs of hatred put on simply to sell better on pay-per-view.
No, this time it’s for real. Because when Jones talks about Rashad, or when Rashad talks about Jones, the two throw uppercuts squarely at each other’s character.
One says his opponent is arrogant and entitled. The other says his opponent is bitter and jealous. Both say the other is playing a fake character, more worried about public image than private integrity.
Neither feels too sentimental about the memories from just a couple years ago, when they trained together at Greg Jackson’s gym in Albuquerque, NM, and mimicked their friend’s upcoming opponent to help their friend prepare.
All that love between the two? It’s gone, long gone.
For Rashad, his opponent — whose four-win 2011 is considered to be one of the greatest years in UFC history — has developed a quiet but unmistakable arrogance about becoming the face of his sport. It’s that mystical, untouchable feeling surrounding Jones’ public image that infuriates Rashad, combined with the more personal sentiment that Jones would stab anyone in the back to further his own career. In a moment of candor, Rashad told FOXSports.com that Jones is “a snake.”
“He wears so many masks,” Rashad said. “You really never know which one you’re dealing with. You’re not going to get a consistent straight guy with him. He puts on a little bit — a little bit too much.”
Think Jones will take the high road, ignore the venom spat by the man he used to look up to, and simply focus on the fight? Not a chance.
For Jones, it’s a feeling of inauthenticity with Rashad that angers him, not to mention the feeling that Rashad is jealous of Jones stealing his shine. Jones mocks Rashad’s inveterate showmanship — the prancing in the ring, the grabbing of his crotch after victories — and says it shows Rashad acts like whomever the crowd or the UFC marketing machine wants him to be. He’s calling me fake? Jones says. He’s calling me arrogant?
“Rashad is the one who takes a lot of things, his own personal demons, and he tries to stick ‘em on me, almost like a nametag he’s peeling off his shirt and putting onto my shirt,” Jones said. “Like ‘cocky.’ Before I came along, Rashad Evans was the king of cocky.”
Yes, there is a bit of a high school-style peacocking in the bickering between the two. There was a newspaper report that the two nearly came to blows at a Las Vegas club. There was the text message Rashad supposedly sent Jones, calling him a “white boy.” And there’s the occasional tweet fired between the two, like a couple weeks ago, when Jones tweeted this about his upcoming opponent: “if you wanna know whats in a mans head, listen to the words that comes out of his mouth.”
Listening to Jones talk about his old friend, you’re surprised the two haven’t thrown down at recent news conferences promoting UFC 145. Because the barbs the two have fired at each other aren’t just about projecting an air of invincibility leading up to this fight.
These barbs are personal.
“I am who I am,” Jones said. “Rashad is one who changes up who he is. Constantly. One minute he has a do-rag on and wants to play the thug. One minute he has the suit on and wants to play the intellectual black guy. He’s the one who’s confused with what his character is.”
It’s a blood feud with deep roots, which had been brewing before Jones gave an interview a year ago that supposedly sparked Rashad ending their friendship. Jones was about to get his first title shot because Rashad had to pull out of the fight due to a knee injury. Jones told mixed-martial arts reporter Ariel Helwani that, if it ever came down to it, if UFC president Dana White forced him to, then yes, he would fight his friend and training partner.
It seemed pretty innocuous on the surface. Problem is the two had a pact that they would never fight each other, even if it meant faking an injury to get out of the fight. Jones broke this pact in an interview, not to Rashad’s face.
Since he became the youngest UFC champion in history in a fight he only got because of Rashad’s misfortune, Jones has shot to the top of the sport. He talks about lasting greatness and leaving a legacy. He compares his work ethic to some of the greatest names in sports history: Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. A recent magazine cover had Jones mimicking a famous underwater photo of Ali.
This sort of stuff rankles the former champ.
“The first time I met him,” Rashad recalled, “he shook my hand – ‘Oh my God, Rashad!’ – he was almost too excited. ‘Man, what’s it like when people want to take their picture with you?’ He was almost infatuated.”
“I could see Jon was always trying to be in my position,” Rashad continued. “He almost couldn’t wait to be the man. … But sometimes what the media does, they build somebody up so they can tear him down. He thinks it’s only a way up. He doesn’t understand they build you up, build you up, build you up, then they wait for the fall.
"Him buying into his own hype could lead to his own demise. Because the fall will come.”
If Rashad has his way, Jones’ fall will come Saturday night. But in the meteoric rise of Jones’ past year, the talk about his fighting has shifted. It used to be, “Is he for real? Can he win his next fight?” Now people speak about Jones in terms of all-time greats, and wonder if he could go down as better than Randy Couture, better than Chuck Lidell, better than Anderson Silva, better than Matt Hughes.
Yes, it’s premature. He’s only 24. Of course, some of it is hype. But just like the spat with his former training partner, a lot of this hype is real.
That’s the most fascinating part about UFC 145, and why the top card has the makings of an all timer: It has two of the best fighters in the world today coupled with a storyline filled with authenticity.
“I’m intrigued that he’s so obsessed with my character,” Jones said. “I don’t know why it’s so personal for Rashad, but it makes it better for me. Rashad’s attacking my character. But at the same time, I’m not really caring about Rashad’s character. I care about his technique, his mentally as a warrior, not the person he is.”
Maybe that’s true, that Jones doesn’t care about Rashad’s character, that he’s only worried about when Rashad has a tendency to punch and when Rashad has a tendency to shoot.
Not likely. So, before the two set things straight in the Octagon, here’s one more verbal jab from Jones about his old friend: “I think Rashad’s really trying to make himself believe he’s going to win the fight,” Jones said. “But I believe Rashad knows he’s going to lose.”
Ah, yes. That’s more like it.
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.