Former teammates will settle a score in a highly anticipated grudge match Saturday at UFC 145 as Jon Jones, a man widely dubbed as the future of the sport, defends his light heavyweight championship against Rashad Evans, a bitter former champion eager to spoil the meteoric rise of the 24-year-old sensation.
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Here’s a closer look at the main event:
Jon Jones (15-1) vs. Rashad Evans (17-1-1)
The fastest rising and most dominant star in mixed martial arts looks to add another victim to his growing legacy when he defends the coveted light heavyweight title against a former teammate and titleholder in a bout fuelled by bitterness and hatred.
Jones, 24, is coming off an incredible 2011 campaign, dismantling Ryan Bader, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Lyoto Machida to cap off arguably the most outstanding year of any fighter in history.
Still a young prodigy who continues to evolve, which is a scary proposition for future opponents, Jones is determined to put on a strong showing against his former training partner after months of bickering and hostility.
Jones was granted a shot at the title after Evans was forced to withdraw due to an injury. The New York native capitalized on the opportunity in a career-defining performance, forcing "Shogun" to plummet to the floor and tap out from a vicious onslaught of strikes.
The champion’s subsequent performances were equally impressive, cementing his place among the sport’s pound-for-pound elite.
The feud between Jones and Evans started after Jones hinted at the very real possibility that a fight with Evans could come to fruition if UFC president Dana White wanted it to happen. Meanwhile, Evans, who insists they had an agreement in place to never cross paths, was furious with Jones’ demeanor in the interview.
Evans felt betrayed, both by Jones and former coach Greg Jackson, who assured Evans that he would never need to fight his own teammate before allowing Jones to join his acclaimed Albuquerque-based academy. Evans was hesitant, but he agreed to the terms and a friendship was established.
Sure enough, close friends have become bitter enemies as Evans felt betrayed by Jones’ comments in the interview and Jackson’s failure to have a proper system in place to prevent teammates from clashing in the octagon.
Evans abandoned his primary team and moved to Florida, where he joined the Imperial Athletics squad with his longtime friend and coach Mike Van Arsdale. Surrounded by fresh African-American and Brazilian training partners, the "Blackzilians" team was born. Home to Tyrone Spong, Jorge Santiago, Melvin Guillard, Gesias Cavalcante and Anthony Johnson, the atmosphere has motivated Evans and given him a new sense of belonging. Throughout his training camp, Alistair Overeem, Daniel Ghita, Braulio Estima and Jake Shields have also passed through the emerging academy, giving Evans a slew of styles to train with in preparation for the biggest fight of his life.
Jones continues to hone his skills at Jackson’s MMA under the watchful eyes of Jackson and boxing coach Mike Winkeljohn. Armed with an 84.5-inch reach and a 6-foot-4 frame, Jones is one of the most physically imposing specimens at 205 pounds. As a former high school wrestler and state champion, Jones has taken to all the intricacies of the world’s fastest growing sport, developing an effective, rangy striking game and an overwhelming submission arsenal aided by his enormous size and strength.
The youngest UFC champion in history is looking forward to a long career atop the UFC ladder, but if he looks too far past his adversary on Saturday night, his tremendous momentum could come to a screeching halt.
Evans, 32, has already had his taste of greatness as he captured the 205-pound championship by defeating Forrest Griffin in 2008. His title reign was short-lived as he suffered a disheartening knockout loss at the hands of then-unbeaten sensation Machida in his very first title defense.
The road back to the title has been a long one for Evans, but he solidified his standing as the No. 1 contender with victories over Thiago Silva, "Rampage," and Tito Ortiz. Most recently, Evans put the first blemish on the record of NCAA standout Phil Davis, outworking him over five one-sided rounds this past January.
Coming from an NCAA Division I wrestling background, Evans first made his mark in the UFC as a heavyweight, winning the second season of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show. The New York native earned wins over Stephan Bonnar and Michael Bisping, but his resounding second-round knockout of Chuck Liddell in 2008 sent shockwaves through the mixed martial arts industry and positioned Evans as a top dog in the stacked division.
Evans will suffer from a 10-inch reach and five-inch height disadvantage. However, the determined challenger is accustomed to fighting bigger men and he’s seemingly unfazed by all the buzz and hype surrounding the younger champion.
In his most recent appearance, Evans effectively combined striking in close quarters with quick takedowns to defeat Davis, whose frame is the closest to resembling Jones in the division. If he can implement a similar strategy, he could be successful.
Both men possess exceptional cardio. Evans is a more decorated wrestler, but Jones’ long range gives him a substantial edge if he can keep the action upright.
Interestingly, both men can attest to the fact that Evans had a decisive edge in practice by utilizing his wrestling to hold Jones down. The champion has undoubtedly improved significantly since sharing the mat with Evans, but the challenger could have a mental edge if he had the better of Jones in training.
Saturday night will mark the next chapter in the Jones journey. Evans claims he has a blueprint to derailing the seemingly indomitable force, but many before him have tried and each and every one has failed.
Jones has no visible weaknesses. He proved his ability to take a punch when Machida scored with some big shots in the first round of their bout this past December. Evans will be a stiff test, but Jones should be well prepared for anything the former champion will throw his way.
If Jones can limit the challenger’s takedowns, while utilizing his long reach to dissect him with a multitude of combinations, he will cruise to yet another triumph. Evans will threaten him early with looping overhand punches and rapid takedown attempts, but Jones will likely solve his timing by the third round before putting him away with a violent flurry.