There's two things that are discussed that I tend to not believe in: "Octagon Jitters" and ring rust. Octagon jitters may affect fighters who make their way up from small King of the Cage events, but we've heard it excuse lackadaisical performances from those who came from other big stages in Japan. It just doesn't make sense how fighting in front of 20k North American fans can cause a fighter to lose himself when a lot of shows in Japan would pull similar gates. As far as ring rust goes, it's believable to a certain extent, but fighters who are constantly in the gym aren't seeing their skills degrade. In fact, it's the opposite, they are able to build on their existing skill set because of more time to develop well-roundedness.
Tonight, Rashad Evans will be stepping back into the UFC octagon after 14 months without a fight, his last fight being against Quinton Jackson at UFC 114. During this time he was preparing for a showdown with Shogun, who was rehabilitating another knee injury. Just weeks before the culmination of that training camp, Evans himself suffered a knee injury and was forced to pull out of the fight. Prior to this injury, Rashad has been one of the healthiest fighters in the UFC.
For Evans, he hasn't really been an active fighter in the last couple of years. Since 2008, he's only fought five times. Technically this should mean that he should have suffered ring rust in every fight. On the flip side, by being so inactive, he's actually been able to minimize the amount of trauma to his body in fights. While his contemporaries are trading blows in the cage, his brain and body remain healthy. He hasn't suffered a terrible string of injuries or knockout losses. In short, his schedule has allowed him to continue to fight at a higher level because he isn't putting his body through the grinder. We've seen fighters in Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva lose their chins because they opted to be active fighters in the primes of their careers.
After defeating Jean Pascal, 46 year old boxer Bernard Hopkins stated in his post fight interview that he was now entering his physical prime. While his peers fought for the crowd, Hopkins' career could best be summed up as impressive yet underwhelming. He took minimal damage in fights and remained clean afterwards. Hopkins doesn't drink or do drugs. He recognized long ago that longevity will be based on hard work and a desire to remain healthy during his career. One of his aforementioned peers is Roy Jones Jr. who was long considered one of the most exciting boxers in the world. He was once the best boxer in the world. One day his skills were gone and he hasn't be able to find that magic since.
This brings to question how long is the prime supposed to last? A fighter's prime is essentially a way for fans and media to have a rough estimate for how long the combatant will be competitive. However, if there has been minimal wear and tear, isn't it safe to assume that fighter is creating longevity in the sport? Evans enters this fight healthy and in the best shape of his life. During his time off, he expanded his strength and conditioning program and looks massive for the first time in his career. He also trained more in all areas of the sport, instead of just focusing on his wrestling and boxing. Rashad has managed his UFC career with brilliance and has mirrored Bernard Hopkins in many ways. He'll be able to last longer in this sport because he's utilized game plans that maximize his chances to win while minimizing his opponent's opportunities to do damage.
In his entire UFC career, he's used his wrestling more effectively than any other fighter in the Light Heavyweight division. He hasn't been caught in slugfests besides his lone loss with Lyoto Machida. He's used takedowns to fight where he has the advantage. Compared to other wrestlers in Liddell and Quinton Jackson, he's the only one who has used his takedowns to in conjunction with his stand up abilities. This has caused him to retain his reflexes and explosiveness on takedowns.
Ring rust will play as much of a factor tonight as it has during the rest of Rashad's career. He'll be battling a healthy Tito Ortiz but for a fighter who has undergone more surgeries to his back than I can count, how healthy can Ortiz really be? The fight will be just another Rashad Evan's fight. If he chooses to stand and trade, he'll get Tito's timing down and remain a step faster than Ortiz. Should this fight turn into a wrestling match, it will really be decided by how much Ortiz's shots have degraded over the course of his career. The fight will come down to who is the better fighter, it just shouldn't have the ring rust excuse attached to it.