Saturday Night's Mania Event: Jones vs Evans and Silva vs Sonnen rivalries to heat up UFC in down year

Mixed martial arts (MMA), by design, is built to cultivate rivalries. Indeed, the literal definition of the word is "competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field."

In the UFC, dating all the way back to the beginning, rivalries are what has helped the promotion subsist. Prosper, even. There's a reason the most successful box office bouts of all time have been borne of bad blood. Some form of deep seated rivalry helps tell a story that viewers and fans can connect to.

Some MMA purists don't like to admit as much but the drama that comes with legitimate issues outside the cage that manifest themselves inside it are what drives interest. I can't connect with Brock Lesnar because I don't identify with him in any way. I'll never go through a rigorous training camp in preparation for a fight. I'll never sit in front of cameras and have countless media members bombarding me with questions at press conferences. I'll never get my weight documented in my underwear while thousands of fans look on and photogs snap pictures of me.

Lastly, I'll never climb inside a cage, have it locked behind me, and attempt to maim a fellow human being (even if I sometimes want to).

It's for all these reasons that his rivalry with Frank Mir was so special. Because it gave me a reason to care not just about him or his fight, but a vested interest in the outcome of said fight.

Lesnar and Mir had met once before, in Brock's debut in the UFC. After initially brutalizing the Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist, the former WWE superstar made a rookie mistake and left himself wide open for a submission, one Mir wasted little time in exploiting.

A few short taps later and that was all she wrote.

By the time the two hooked up for a rematch, there was bad blood. Really bad. Mir had run his mouth from the moment he was first matched up against Lesnar, calling him out for his association with pro wrestling, his inexperience, his failure in the first fight, his meathead reputation; nothing was off limits. He was as cocky and insufferable as possible.

Lesnar, of course, didn't take kindly to all this, vowing to hulk smash Mir through the mat when they finally had their rematch. And when they did, that's exactly what happened. At UFC 100 -- the most successful pay-per-view in the history of MMA at 1.6 million buys -- Lesnar knocked Mir senseless with a series of blows that had Mir's face looking like uncooked hamburger.

It was glorious. Why, you ask?

Because this time I had a vested interest. This time, the rivalry sucked me in and gave me a reason to care beyond the sporting aspect. I hated Mir for being such a cocky prick, thinking his shit didn't stink. His attack on pro wrestling and Brock's history there is something I can relate to because I still get attacked for my pro wrestling fandom today.

I wanted Lesnar to shut him up and prove him wrong. That just because Brock came from the scripted entertainment business doesn't mean he can't turn you into a bumbling pile of mush.

Countless others felt the same, albeit in their own special way. That's a big reason so many folks paid to see it. Combining Lesnar's charisma and star power that he carried over from WWE, the rivalry with Mir made boku bucks for all involved and gave MMA fans a thrilling conclusion to an awesome feud between two people who legitimately didn't like each other.

Which brings me to today.

We, as fans of the sport, are lucky that in a year that won't feature Brock Lesnar (who retired) and may not see a Georges St. Pierre fight (knee injury) there are two different rivalry match-ups that promise all the greatness of every major rivalry before it.

I'm talking, of course, about Chael Sonnen vs. Anderson Silva and Rashad Evans vs. Jon Jones.

In the case of the former, it's a rematch of one of the greatest fights in the history of the UFC. The two tussled back in Aug. 2010 in a five-round classic that saw Sonnen overwhelm the champion in a way no other fighter inside the Octagon had ever come close to. But he fell short by just a few minutes, as "The Spider" used his long limbs to ensnare his prey in a submission to keep his title.

Sonnen used hard work and a big mouth to talk his way into the fight and damn near backed up his big talk once he got it. It was incredible. Silva's Hail Mary submission was equally amazing. There was widespread speculation that he deliberately let Sonnen do most of what he did but there's no way to know for sure.

Unless Silva bombs him in the rematch and proves without a shadow of a doubt that he's the superior fighter.

Either way, the press tour is almost already in full swing and a date hasn't even been locked down yet. Sonnen is carrying around a fake title and claiming he's the true champion. His antics are getting increasingly ridiculous but it works because it makes us care.

Silva still hates his guts and it shows in every interview he does when the subject of his next opponent comes up. He's tired of dealing with this troll and now he'll get the chance to vanquish him into the depths, once and for all.

And we get to bear witness, my friends.

The other match-up could be just as good if not better. Not because the bout is intriguing for all the potential outcomes. Quite the contrary, in fact, Jones opened as a huge favorite over Evans at -600. That's almost unheard of in championship fights when you're talking about the best in the world.

But this goes beyond actual fighting.

The long and short of it is Jones and Evans were training partners at one time, close enough to refer to themselves as brothers instead of just friends. But once a title came into the picture, things changed. "Bones" had a meteoric rise to the top, going from zero to hero in short order and leapfrogging "Suga" Rashad to win the light heavyweight championship.

All the while the two maintained they wouldn't fight -- or at least Evans did -- until Ariel Helwani asked Jones about potentially defending his belt against his friend.

And he said yes.

Doesn't seem like a big deal but considering the two trained at Greg Jackson's Gym down in New Mexico, it caused a ripple effect felt by many. Evans was pressured to respond in kind, lest he be called a punk and take a P.R. hit, and the shit hit the proverbial fan not long after.

It was only a matter of time before Evans had left his longtime home at Jackson's to train in Florida and has since created a team of his own. Jones remained loyal to Jackson, but the team was divided between two men they considered friends.

Drama!

Nightclub confrontations ensued and every chance they get, the media makes sure to get a juicy quote from one about the other. And they're both all to eager to provide them, throwing dirt on one another's names.

And it's all leading to their showdown at UFC 145 on April 21 in Atlanta, Georgia.

To summarize, there's been a lot to feel down about with the UFC this year. Early events like UFC 142 and UFC on Fox 2 have been duds. Even a UFC 143 main event match-up pitting Carlos Condit vs. Nick Diaz failed to live up to what was, admittedly enough, overblown expectations.

And, as stated, Lesnar is gone forever and St. Pierre is out until at least November, maybe even later. It's a depressing time with little to get excited about.

Except for the culmination of two great rivalries that promise to deliver in every what imaginable.

Can't wait, Maniacs.

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