ATLANTA — They don’t like each other. That much is clear.
When 32-year-old challenger Rashad Evans and 23-year-old light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones step into the octagon cage in Philips Arena in Atlanta on Saturday night in what is perhaps the most anticipated UFC fight since the Chuck Liddell era, it will be more than a title bout. This is like two guys in the alley behind the high school; two former friends who would rather kneecap each other than share a cup of coffee and talk about the upcoming NFL Draft.
This one is personal and nasty. And, in the end, it is a tale as old as sport itself.
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Evans was once the best in his class, a man who had beaten Liddell, Michael Bisping, Forrest Griffin, Tito Ortiz, Phil Davis and Hollywood’s ‘A-Team’ alumni, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. In Evans’ mind, it was his turn to be the UFC’s star, the fighter with the endorsement deals and movie offers, the man whose highlight clip would go viral on the Internet when put to head-banging music like “Boom” by P.O.D.
He also feels as though his success helped transform the Albuquerque, N.M., gym of trainers Mike Winkeljohn and Greg Jackson into the elite spot for UFC champions.
Then came Jones, a preacher’s son from Endicott, N.Y., with a quick smile and earnest, engaging delivery worthy of a Sunday pulpit. A former college wrestler with an older brother who was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens and a younger brother who is now on the defensive line at Syracuse, Jones showed up in Albuquerque confident, not brash — talented, but willing to learn.
Evans didn’t mind helping the youngster. In fact he saw Jones as a worthy successor, someone who could step into the role of champion and UFC ambassador after Evans’ run was complete.
But things didn’t work out that way. Jones and Jackson split from Evans, and Jones became the youngest champion in UFC history, bypassing Evans before the veteran ever had a chance to shine.
It didn’t help that Jones was a marketer’s dream: handsome, warm, articulate, funny and so talented that people in the know began drawing comparisons to Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali.
Thus the ranker for this fight: Evans believes that Jones jumped in line and that he and Jackson showed a lack of loyalty and respect for an understood, if unspoken, pecking order.
Jones, a devoted Christian, takes a more Darwinian view of the world: The best rise to the top, regardless of age or experience.
And like a scene from the old “Highlander” movies, the two will finally face off on Saturday night, both knowing that “There can be only one.”
“I have realized that he hates me,” Jones said of Evans in a pre-fight video interview. “He doesn’t hate that I’m a champion, I think he just hates that I’m a happy individual and he’s not. It’s weird, I feel like I’m fighting a guy who is so obsessed with demolishing what I stand for; demolishing my name and my character, and not just beating me in a fight, but having every fan hate me. I really think that’s what he wants. It’s kind of sad.”
After Thursday workouts, Evans tried to take a philosophical view of his opponent. “He always wanted to be in that No. 1 spot,” the contender said of Jones. “Now he’s probably wishing that he didn’t have that spot. I know. He’ll tell you one thing to your face but I guarantee he doesn’t like all the cameras, he doesn’t like all the pressure.
“He puts on a brave face, but it’s not what he thought it would be.”
No matter what Evans says about him – and the personal digs are deep and frequent – Jones has refused to take the bait. During a pre-fight conference call, Jones seemed annoyed by the buzz from this back-story.
“I’m a guy who really has no problems with anyone in the UFC, and not one fighter can say they really have a problem with me,” Jones said. “I would like to be able to be at a UFC event and not feel awkward in the same room with Rashad. … He knows where I’m coming from. We both have been looking forward to this fight for a long time and for whatever reason it’s been put off. But it’s here now and I’m done talking. I just want to get in there and do my thing.”
Evans isn’t quite there yet. When asked about Jones’ marketing potential, he smirked and said, “Everybody has the potential to be something. You know how many Michael Jordans never made it out the ‘hood? Or how many great players were never known? There’s great potential everywhere, but it’s what you do with it that matters.”
Not since Sonny Liston brandished a gun to quiet a mouthy Cassius Clay has a fight seen this kind of acrimony. And the UFC brass loves it.
“The light-heavyweight division has always been a special weight class,” UFC president Dana White said. “The Jon Jones-Rashad Evans match could be the biggest fight at 205 pounds in years.”