Rashad Evans' career is a case study in how difficult navigating the treacherous waters of MMA can be on a fighter. Evans, once considered one of the best talents in the sport, has consistently searched for the winning combination of skills and mindset. And every-time it seems he has found a winning formula the rug is pulled out from under his feet and he is sent back to the drawing board.
Evans started his UFC career coming out of The Ultimate Fighter house, where he competed has a Heavyweight and won the season. A Division I wrestler at Michigan State, Evans used his wrestling to great success on the show, but when he got into the UFC he struggled to win decisively, his first two fights in the UFC ending in a split and majority decision.
Over the course of 2006 and 2007 Evans fought six times and clearly began adding striking skills to his game, both on the ground and standing. He slowly began working and more stand up striking into his fights and then in 2008 Evans knocked out Chuck Liddell, the premier striker of the Light Heavyweight division for years. Evans then knocked out Forrest Griffin, the man who had just out struck Rampage Jackson, to claim the UFC Light Heavyweight title.
At this point in his career Evans was now 13-0-1, 29-years-old, training at Jackson's MMA, one of the premier camps in the sport, and was seen as the culmination of excellent physical talent and skills that would result in a dominant champion. Evans' striking was marveled at, mostly due to the speed and power of his punches. Evans seemed to have found his winning formula of a wrestle-boxer with deadly power and fight ending ground strikes.
Then he fought Lyoto Machida, and two things became very clear. First was the Evans had become too enamored with his striking and that it was not at that elite level many portrayed it. Evans headed back to Jackson's MMA, defeated for the first time in his career and he took the lesson of the loss to heart.
Evans' then dedicated himself to becoming a more modern mixed martial artist. He focused on more fully integrating his wrestling and striking. His rebirth as a fighter got off to a rocky start with a very narrow win over Thiago Silva at UFC 108.
But soon Evans was again being praised for being on the cutting edge of the sport. Together he and Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal had developed the "Cuban" stance, a low boxing stance that allowed them to transition quickly between striking and grappling. The benefits of that stance was on full display when he defeated Quinton "Rampage" Jackson at UFC 114.
But then another Jackson MMA fighter, Jon Jones, rose to claim the Light Heavyweight title, and the tension began to build. It culminated in Evans leaving the Jackson camp. The camp move didn't seem to effect Evans too much as he quickly pulled off two of his most impressive performances as a fighter. At UFC 133 Evans faced Tito Ortiz, and looked to be in fantastic shape and easily dispatched the aging former champion. Then at UFC on Fox 2, Evans dominated rising star Phil Davis over the course of five rounds to earn a title shot against his former teammate.
Evans was now a cutting edge mixed martial artist who had out grappled some of the premier wrestlers of the division, had out struck some of the best strikers, and seemed have to learned from his defeat. And it all added up to nothing against Jon Jones, who toyed with Evans. It was abundantly clear that Jones was just ahead of Evans in terms of mixing together striking skill and wrestling.
Evans was again forced back to the drawing board, this time without the guidance of the Jackson MMA coaching staff. It took Evans almost a year to get back in the cage and when he faced aging Pride star Antonio Rogerio Nogueira he turned in a listless performance that resulted in his giving a fight away.
Evans now heads into his UFC 161 match against Dan Henderson with more questions than answers. What is Evans goal right now? Is he building back towards a title shot or looking to wind down his career with money fights? What is he doing to improve his skill set if wants to continue to be a contender? What kind of fighter is he right now?
The fight against Nogueira suggests that Evan might not have a clear path for himself, and we will see if he can provide answers in his performance against Henderson.