It's a very nostalgic mood at The Flatiron Hall in downtown New York City. Rashad Evans is sitting casually in his seat next to his buddy, GLORY kickboxing sensation Tyrone Spong, and he is looking over the menu at what his limited possibilities are, since he is days away from having to make weight for his UFC 167 match-up against Chael Sonnen.
Evans is in town to promote the 20th anniversary of the storied promotion he has spent the last eight years fighting for. So naturally the conversation turned back the clock to his remembrances of seeing the first UFC event as a teenager in 1993.
"I was 14 years old doing wrestling and karate," Evans said Monday, during the UFC media luncheon. "I was at my friend's house and we were babysitting some kids and we had a scrambler box. We were watching it and we were talking about what would happen if this guy would fight this guy, stylistically speaking. We damn near wanted to beat each other up."
"The UFC answered all those questions," Evans continued, seemingly just as excited, as he was the first time he watched. "It made a big impression on me. I remember telling my karate instructor, ‘I want to do this one day. I want to go out there and fight like that one day."
Although the seed was planted in his mind back then, the 34-year-old fighter admits, "It was never a big decision. Like ‘Okay I'm going to be a mixed martial artist.' It was just something I fell into, just something for me to do," he said.
After the future UFC light heavyweight champion graduated from Michigan State, he was pursuing work as a police officer, but had no luck due to hiring freezes. It was while he was working as a security guard, that a chance encounter led to his first training sessions.
"I met this guy that was training in NHB (no holds barred)," Evans recalls. "Noe Hernandez. I went out there at the gym they trained at. It was a little hole in the wall, pretty much a room. Six months later I had my first fight. It was never anything I thought would be a career."
"When I started fighting, it wasn't sanctioned in all these different places," he said about the early days. "You would go and fight in little hole in the wall bars. Nobody really had their blood work, done. There was no commission to make sure that fighters should be fighting. It was just you show up ‘hey you want to fight?' ‘Yeah I want to fight.' Then you just go and fight."
"That's how it was in Angola, Indiana. Where the hell is Angola at anyway?" Evans says, laughing. "Angola, Indiana. That's where I had my first mixed martial arts fight. I fought in a tournament. That's how it was. I would just show up and fight and record it. And then I'd go to work and I'd be like ‘yo, you won't believe how I beat this dudes ass this weekend.' Then pop it in, it was something fun to watch."
While still getting the wheels in motion at the early stages of his career, and just a novice of the sport, Evans had heard from Hernandez, and saw for himself that there was "no money in the sport at the time. I was just thinking it would be something fun to do, and that's what it was." He said.
"It didn't really come on my radar as something I could do as a career, until I got on The Ultimate Fighter show," Evans admits. Then fighting at heavyweight on the second season of TUF, Evans would defeat Brad Imes by split decision to earn his UFC contract. During the season though, he still wasn't completely sold on MMA as a lifelong career.
"Even when I was on TUF I was like ‘I'll just do this do this for a little bit, but then I'll go back to trying to be a cop. This was fun, and this will be a good experience and a good story,'" he says. "I had no idea it would take on a whole life of its own."
That it did and Evans rose to prominence, winning the light heavyweight division just three years later. Now, almost a decade into his UFC career, Evans is still ranked in the top half of the 205-pound division, has a remarkable 13-3-1 record inside the Octagon and has witnessed all the highs and lows the sport can offer.
There was winning the belt from Forrest Griffin at UFC 92, losing the belt to Lyoto Machida in his very next fight, the knee injury that cost him his second shot at the title against "Shogun" Rua, the bitter departure from Jackson's MMA and fallout with former teammate and friend Jon Jones, the title-fight loss to Jones at UFC 145 and starting up the heavily scrutinized Blackzilian camp in Florida.
After dropping a decision loss to Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 156 last February, Evans was on his first professional losing streak. He righted the ship with a huge win over Dan Henderson at UFC 162 in June, to avoid the ill-fated third loss in a row.
"Even though the UFC don't say that you desperately need this fight to stay with us, you feel it," Evans admits. "The pressure does get to you." The Blackzilian cherishes the times when he first started fighting, "That naivete I had of not knowing," he said. "It was just so fun because it wasn't my job. The only time fighting ever got scary for me was when I needed to make money."
"When it became my job the dynamics of it changed as far as how I felt about competing because now I needed to win, he continued. "It wasn't just something that if I won, I won. Now I needed it because if I didn't win, what was I going to do. That was how my family ate. My whole feeling changed."
"Sometimes I yearn for that young competitive spirit I had. You should of seen when I fought Gladiators Challenge. I was dancing around. I was just acting a goddamn fool, a fool," he said, raising his voice. "Because it didn't even matter. It didn't matter if I lost I could still go home and go to work and whatever. It didn't matter. The way I competed was totally different. When it became a job I was like ‘oh shit.' When it comes to competing sometimes I wish I could just flick that switch I had, that ‘I don't give a f**k what happens.' Just go out there, trust my abilities, trust my skills and just do the work."
The former champion is well spoken, and is comfortable with any question that may get thrown his way. He is placing any feelings he has right on the table for all to consume. Seeing his reactions, it's evident that he is very self aware, and very comfortable in his own skin. He knows what it is that makes him tick. Putting some distance between himself and that losing streak, as well as being further away from dealing with a divorce in his personal life this past year, has definitely helped him.
"I feel like I'm away from it a bit to the sense where I feel like myself again," Evans said with a sense of relief. "I'm starting to feel like I can go out there and compete and enjoy myself competing." The former light heavyweight champ said he "was definitely thinking too much." One of the big reasons, he explained, was trying to add too much to his arsenal instead of focusing on what he does best.
"If you put too many tools in the toolbox, you are going to be taking out some of the ones that you use to use a lot more to fit them in there; the ones that are your favorite ones to use," he explains. "So I think that's what I did a little bit of. I got away from the tools that I needed."
"You just have to know who you are. I'm a wrestler," he continued. "I can strike well, but for the most part that's what I do, I bring the pressure. I bring the wrestling and that's how I win fights. That's how I got to where I am right now." Of course he did admit that he definitely fell in love with striking and being able to knock someone out during his career.
"Knocking someone out is a feeling second to none. Just separating someone from consciousness... You look over and you're like, ‘Damn I just did that,'" Evans says with excitement, as Spong is nodding in agreement next to him.
"The ref is pulling you off of him and you are like ‘What! Joe Silva calls me or Dana White calls me and I'll fight anybody. I'll fight right now,'" he says slightly animated. "You have that hype to you and it feels good to go out there and train for weeks on end and then end a fight in one minute. That shit feels good. It's intoxicating because you know how easy a fight could be. At the same time when you go out there and you are looking for it, it never comes."
Something many thought would never come after the contentious feud with Jon Jones was another fight against a friend, but that's what is on the docket next for Evans, his pal, FOX broadcasting colleague and sometimes training partner Chael Sonnen. There isn't any trash talk for this one coming from either side, and that is something Evans -- who has been some in of the best trash-talking battles of the UFC's history -- finds "a bit relieving."
"Our instincts tell us that a fight is not really a fight unless someone is talking shit," he said. "Unless you have a problem with someone... That, in peoples' minds, solidifies there's a fight. But with Chael there really is no need for that."
"I feel that we are meeting for another reason and that reason is to not lose against each other," he continued. "I don't want him to ever say he whooped me. The funny thing about it is -- I was just saying this -- we train together three weeks after the fight. I definitely don't want him to be sitting next to him like ‘Damn, he just beat me.' I don't want that feeling. Competitively speaking, it puts competing in its place because you have these fights and sometimes it's personal and you talk shit. It puts it in its place, because, it's just competition and it's not personal."
Aside from seeing Evans corner his buddy Spong at the last GLORY fight in Chicago, he hasn't really been seen a great deal for this fight against Sonnen, especially with the promos being highly geared toward St-Pierre vs. Hendricks. Evans said, "That's a good thing."
"I don't need to be one of those guys, who has to be always out there," he says happily. "Right now, where I'm at in my career: I'm steadily building; I'm steadily getting better. Flying under the radar without all the hype, without all this, is something that I enjoy."
"That's one thing I can say is that I haven't been getting caught up in, is what the expectations are. Whatever the rankings mean it doesn't really matter to me to be honest," he said. "My goal is to be number one and I'm going to take my time, and fight whoever the UFC puts in front of me. I know that's not the answer that everybody wants to hear, because people want to know who you want to fight next, and who you want after that.
Currently ranked number four in the UFC light heavyweight rankings, Evans said the division has "changed a lot" and the epic battle between Alexander Gustafsson and Jones "opened peoples' minds up a bit in the division to say, ‘You know what? He is beatable.'"
Evans is probably a couple wins away still, and said he "definitely" wants another shot at the belt, but it's the belt itself that he is after not Jones. "I don't really care for Jones as a person, but I respect him as a fighter," Evans stated. "I would love to get a chance, competitively speaking to just do it and say I fought him again and this is the result. To see who is really the best and challenge myself like that, but I would rather fight for the belt."
That being said, Evans is not fixated on the 205-pound strap at the moment, he just wants to enjoy the rest of his career and take it as it comes. He definitely gave off the vibe that he is completely content if he gets another chance to win it, or if he doesn't.
"I just want to go out and enjoy fighting," he said. "I'm 34 years old and I don't know how long I'm going to be blessed and be physically able to keep on fighting. Right now this is what I'm doing. For me it's not about always trying to rush to get into the mix, as Dana White calls it. I don't want to feel like a donkey with a carrot in front of my face. I just want to go out there and compete and just have fun doing it."
"I've been blessed. I feel great. I want to enjoy it," he said, like he had forgotten how to his last couple of fights. "I want to enjoy every single fight. I want to enjoy every single camp. I want to enjoy the process. Whatever the process means at the end of my career, that's what it means and I'll be happy about that."
With a budding broadcasting career being built up while he is still fighting, Evans is setting up his future, and feels "It's a good way to grow old with the sport."
"Fighting has given me so much in my life that I could never give back enough," Evans said, speaking from the heart. "This sport has changed my life. I want to stay close and connected to it. I want to be able to make a transition from being a fighter, to being an analyst or a cageside guy or color commentator. I don't want to be one of those guys who gets retired by the sport. I want to be able to say I had a good run, that was my time, but now I'm able to do something else."