A pair of almost elite light heavyweights try to remain relevant this October 3, 2015 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas.
The Match Up
Light Heavyweight Ryan Bader +140 vs. Rashad Evans -160
3 Things You Should Know
1. With a 4-0 record since losing to Glover Teixeira, Ryan Bader may be quietly knocking on a title contention door.
Bader has come a long way since trying to avoid smashing Junie Browning's face near the pool on TUF. Bader had always radiated a blue chip menace. But not necessarily a blue chip mentality. He had a nice run in the early going, but losses to Jon Jones, and snatching defeat from the bleach blonde jaws of victory against Tito Ortiz at UFC 132 practically turned him into a punchline of prospect pubescence.
His list of recent victories might not be earth shattering, but they're solid names on any dance card; Rafael Cavalcante, Ovince St. Preux, and Phil Davis in particular. Now it's the Ryan Bader vs. Rashad Evans show, and I'm not sure Evans wouldn't be out of place on Bader's recent list. However, perhaps we must have forgot.
2. It's hard to envision Rashad being a successful 36 year old light heavyweight after a two year layoff due to injuries, but he's a cerebral fighter, and shouldn't be overlooked.
Evans is a fascinating fighter. Fans and observers tend to overstate his athleticism, ignoring the cerebral pugilism he's capable of that betrayed the explosive black athlete stereotype back when he was keeping calm in the face of Matt Hughes' despotic posturing on TUF.
I decided to watch Evans' fight with Chael Sonnen again because I'm a sucker for violence against white collar criminals. And because it's useful to do homework for these previews. And boy was that surgical! Sonnen had reinvented himself (chemically and metaphorically) in the cage, to the point that he became a stern test for even the elite. Evans sliced up Sonnen like a Mean Streets Pizza pie, beating him more thoroughly than elite company like Anderson Silva and Jon Jones. It may not be Evans' best or biggest win, but Evans looked good. Can he look good against Bader?
3. Bader is a great bet, but Evans is still favored, regardless of the layoff.
Ring rust is probably more myth than material. Even without the benefit of crunching the numbers, Evans is healthy enough to train for months prior to this fight. So I expect Rashad to be in full form.
Evans' best asset is his ability to phase shift when committed. He's also really good at timing his punches. It's an abstract notion, but he's adept at level changing. The Quinton Jackson bout is the best example of this; a fighter previously impenetrable when it came to wrestling got pretty easily taken down on numerous occasions thanks to sheer timing and rhythm.
In addition, grappling is probably the one skill in MMA that isn't hindered too much by age and decline. Rashad has improved in this area over the years. He no longer has that wrestler's instinct in top control. Bader is a little different. Unlike Rashad, he's improved on the feet to keep up with the division. Where before he was just a one handed fighter, he's managed to blossom with newfound versatility.
It's easy to envision a scenario where Bader wins this one via top control. Evans is a stout grappler, but Bader has the ability to put him on his back. Rashad isn't as adept from his back, so the idea that he can scramble his way out of trouble seems foreign. But Bader has traditionally had trouble with well rounded technicians. This fight could go either way. Either Bader bullies Evans on the ground, or Evans wins a nip tuck battle. Two years ago Evans would have won this fight cleanly. But at his age, and in this kind of matchup where he'll be forced to struggle in the clinch, avoiding top control, I don't see him gaining ground. He has natural power, but his boxing has never threaded the needle into a KO against the truly elite. I'd like to see an Evans that's still relevant, and capable of doing to LHW's what he did to Sonnen, but I suspect his time has passed.
Ryan Bader by Decision.