Out with the old, in with the new.
The old adage never felt more fitting than on the warm September night when the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) rolled into Atlanta, Georgia. For the first time in the state capital's history, the city -- once known for being the home of grown men in tights pretend fighting -- was playing host to UFC 88 and the fight promotion built a card that would ensure the Peach State residents a night to remember.
Indeed it was unforgettable. Not because of the shellacking Nate Marquardt gave Martin Kampmann or even the near-flawless striking display Rich Franklin used to fell Matt Hamill but because of the main event between mixed martial arts (MMA) icon and UFC Hall of Famer Chuck Liddell and The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 2 winner Rashad Evans.
Evans steps inside the Octagon again tomorrow (Jan. 28) taking on Phil Davis, headlining the company's second offering on Fox -- and its first proper event on the broadcast station -- in a fight that would secure the former champion his second light heavyweight title shot. "Suga" is no stranger to having to win a bout in order to get his chance at gold. He was in the position that night in Atlanta.
And the results were shocking.
Since being dethroned from the 205-pound mountain by Quinton Jackson a little over a year prior, "The Iceman" appeared to have lost a step or two. After being knocked out by "Rampage," he dropped a split decision to Keith Jardine at UFC 76 in what was supposed to be a tune-up fight to get him back into the title picture. Losing to Jackson didn't necessarily make Liddell's stock plummet but the uninspired showing against "The Dean of Mean" gave fans and analysts more than enough reason to pause and reflect on Liddell's future among the light heavyweight elite.
Thankfully for his fans, Liddell finished off 2007 by stepping inside the Octagon opposite Wanderlei Silva, a fight MMA enthusiasts had been clamoring to see for years. "The Iceman," on a two-fight skid stood even with Silva who had also lost his two previous bouts. The cynical thoughts of "too little, too late" gave way to a more apathetic feeling of "why not, maybe it'll be fun" which eventually blossomed into pure and adulterated joy as the fight played out. Over 15 minutes, Liddell and Silva gave fans what could possibly be the greatest fight in the history of the sport and in the end, "The Iceman" stood triumphant. It seemed the deposed king was ready to return to his throne.
Evans, since winning the heavyweight tournament during the second season of TUF, had been slowly and steadily climbing the UFC ladder. Two Fight Night co-main events and two wins against fellow TUF alumni Sam Hoger and Stephan Bonnar led to "Suga's" pay-per-view (PPV) debut, an impressive victory over Jason Lambert who had yet to see defeat inside the Octagon. Evans was ready to top the bill.
His first taste at headlining ended as well as he could have hoped. A highlight reel head kick knockout (KO) ended his opponent, Sean Salmon's, night early in the second round and offered a glimpse of the striking prowess "Suga" had at his disposal. He returned to PPV for his next bout, a draw against Tito Ortiz before headlining UFC 78 against Michael Bisping. Since his split decision win over "The Count" that night, Evans hasn't been back to the undercard.
The roads Liddell and Evans had each been travelling met in Atlanta on Sept. 6, 2008. It was a match-up nearly as old as sports itself. The battle-hardened veteran was taking on the young, up-and-comer. Youth versus experience, the old guard trying to stay secure in its place while the new guard does everything it can to upend it.
The first round perfectly epitomized the feeling out process as both fighters circled around each other, hoping to better gauge what each was bringing to the table. Surprisingly, the previously wrestling-heavy Evans attempted no takedowns and opted to stand toe to toe with his knockout artist opponent. What "Suga" lacked in technique, he made up for in speed, both on his feet and in his hands. He continuously avoided Liddell's attacks, suffering only minimal damage while beating "The Iceman" to the punch several times over.
By the end of the round, Liddell was bleeding and nursing a decently sized mouse under one eye. When the second stanza began, each fighter came out much more aggressively. Evans let his hands go with more frequency and with even more speed. Liddell, comfortable enough with his appraisal of Evans' stand-up, began to pressure his younger opponent with more tenacity. Attempting to pin "Suga" against the cage, Liddell looked to add the TUF winner to his already impressive list of victims. But Evans continued to circle away, avoiding the onslaught and countering punches like ... well, like Chuck Liddell.
It all culminated when Evans snapped out a jab which Liddell attempted to answer with an uppercut. Had it connected, it may very well have put "Suga" to sleep. We'll never know as a monster overhand right -- the same punch that would be Liddell's finisher if he was ever in a Mortal Kombat game -- barreled its way into the former champion's jaw. He crumpled to the mat and a shocked silence fell over the Philips Arena. It seemed the only sound emanating from the crowd were the ear-piercing shrieks from Evans' elated wife.
The knockout was vicious; perhaps the most devastating in the sport's history. There were many fans -- like myself -- with no dog in this particular fight and simply marveled at the beautiful brutality that had just been unleashed inside the Octagon. Then there were others - a majority of UFC fans - who counted Liddell among their favorite fighters, if not THE favorite. When "The Iceman" dropped, so too did their moods and any hopes of seeing Liddell challenge for the title he once held onto with an iron grip.
In fact, Liddell would never see victory again in his career while Evans would only see defeat once in the five fights since. The career arcs of these two fights crossed at UFC 88 but each were going is distinctly different directions. If Evans hopes to continue his upward trend, a win over Davis tomorrow night is necessary to secure a showdown with former teammate Jon Jones.
Does "Suga" have what it takes?