It wasn't too long ago that Rashad Evans was considered the best light heavyweight fighter on the planet.
"Suga" fed off a fire burning deep within him, striving to improve himself with every fight and that helped him knock out Chuck Liddell and then take the title from Forrest Griffin to become UFC champion.
The same fire burned bright after losing the belt and helped him go on a solid four fight run with victories over Quinton Jackson, Phil Davis and Tito Ortiz.
But since then, things haven't quite been the same for The Ultimate Fighter season two winner. Evans put forth a spirited effort against former teammate Jon Jones a year ago, the only man to last five rounds against the current champion. In his return bout against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Evans was a heavy favorite but admits he just couldn't find his rhythm, competing in a "mental fog" and losing a lackluster decision to the veteran.
Now, the pressure is on for Evans, who needs to prove to his bosses that he still has the desire to be great and he can put on the type of performances fans around the world will pay to see.
The former champion will battle Dan Henderson at the upcoming (June 15, 2013) UFC 161 event in Toronto and he spoke to MMAmania.com about his role as a Fuel TV analyst, getting that competitive fire back and big changes in the Blackzilian gym in this exclusive interview.
Check it out:
Brian Hemminger (MMAmamania.com): You said on "UFC Tonight" that you think Alexander Gustafsson made a big mistake by going to the Swedish Commission right away when he got the cut over near his eye in training just over a week before the Mousasi fight. Could you elaborate on that?
Rashad Evans: The thing is like this, people go into a fight with different things. Maybe they freaked out, but I don't think they should have gone to the commission right away. I mean, I do give him the fact that there was a chance that at the last minute, the fight could get cancelled, you're giving them a chance to replace the main event so I give them that.
At the same time, you've got a little cut. Put super glue in there and get into the fight, you know? Vitor before he fought Bisping, he got cut real bad, he needed a couple stitches in his head to have it taken care of. It wasn't like it happened two weeks before the fight so in that week he wouldn't be able to train and he'd feel insecure about going into the fight. It happened just over a week before in his last training session. I would have rested it and healed up. It would have been worse if it happened a month ago.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmamania.com): I can understand his and his team's concern though. We saw what happened to Dan Henderson when he didn't reveal his injury and that ended up being a complete disaster with UFC 151. Granted, a three stitch cut over your eye is different than a knee injury.
Rashad Evans: Yeah, a knee injury is something different. That affects your mobility for the fight. I guess a cut puts you in a scary situation. If you've got a cut over your eye and you get punched in the eye and that gets split open again, now you're bleeding into your eye and just thinking about that could get you to fight differently. You might be rushing techniques a bit. From what I've heard, he cut himself, they told the commission and that was it.
If they'd told the UFC, then UFC probably would have told him which steps to take and they'd go from there. UFC always tells us that whenever anything fight-related happens, "just call us. Call us." I think that was the mistake they made because they didn't call UFC first.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmamania.com): There next questions are more centered around you. Training probably gets to be a grind, especially at this point in your career. Is it a nice change of pace to head out to the Fuel TV studios and be an analyst for an event?
Rashad Evans: Yeah, it does man. I got into this sport because I'm a fan of the sport. Being in the role of the analyst I get to be a fan again. You're watching, breaking down fights and that helps you recharge and remember this is an awesome sport and it gets you excited to compete in the sport again.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmamania.com): You mentioned in a recent interview that you weren't really having fun in your last training camp, that it was monotonous and it wasn't like your early days where you were still learning. What steps have you taken to help yourself have fun again in training?
Rashad Evans: It's a lot of things and it comes from personal things on my end, but for the most part, it's the training environment and my training partners. Having and doing the kind of training that makes my game on point, you go through these ebbs and flows sometimes where you feel like you've been doing it so long and you just get by doing what you've been doing and it kinda gets old. After a while, you're putting it off a bit, not paying attention and not being on point and not being where you should be and after a while, it becomes a problem. I think that's something I faced more than anything, just doing something for so long and it didn't feel like what I needed to do in my heart at that point.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmamania.com): Considering you've been to the top and you've been around the game for a long time now with so much experience, it probably gets hard trying to find things you can still learn and still help yourself get that much better too, right?
Rashad Evans: Yeah, it does. That's what I've learned more than anything. You want to learn, to stay ahead of the curve because everyone knows all about the guys at the top of the weight class and at the same time, it's all about perfecting your style. I can't be a striker like the guy who's always been striking, but I can be my version of it. I can be my version of it and put my flair on it. I can mix in my takedown ability and my ground and pound and things like that. That's what I have to do. I'm a wrestler at heart, this is what I do. It doesn't matter who I'm fighting. I need to remember that and stick to the gameplan no matter what.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmamania.com): You brought up the training environment being a key factor for you. Did the morale go up for the team when you had the 3-1 week with WSOF and Glory 5?
Rashad Evans: Yeah, on a team it kind of goes like that. You have ups and downs as a team and you fight through it. The guys at the gym are training hard because they want to set us up in the right direction. We have a good team and we're all tuned in. Whoever's got a fight coming up, we rally around them, "You're next, it's time to kill it!" We dropped a couple at UFC 156 and everyone takes representing the Blackzilians so seriously.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmamania.com): You guys have had a lot of coaching shifts as well and I don't think this point has been brought up enough. Van Arsdale unfortunately left and then Spierry couldn't stick around and they had to rotate in a bunch of different coaches. Do you feel like you've got some stability now that they've brought in a new wrestling coach?
Rashad Evans: That was one thing we'd been missing. We didn't have a wrestling coach after we lost Mike Van Arsdale so we were missing that element of the sport in our fight game. Now we've got Kenny and it's all about everyone working together and the cohesiveness of the whole group. We have different coaches and all these different athletes. It's hard to make sure everyone's on the same page. When you find what everyone's good with, I think that's what we have right now.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmamania.com): That sounds great. I interviewed Danillo Villefort before his WSOF 2 fight and he mentioned that when Van Arsdale left, the wrestling went down a lot at the gym.
Rashad Evans: Yeah, Mike Van Arsdale was one of the best coaches I ever had a chance to train under. I think that Kenny can definitely put us in the right direction again. That's the flow of the fight. You have to have the ability to take the fight where you want to take the fight. If you have good jiu-jitsu, you want to take the guy down. If it's the opposite, you want to keep it standing and bang. It's so important in MMA and now that Kenny's here, I think we'll be good again.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmamania.com): Do you think that will be huge for you especially because your'e facing a guy in Dan Henderson who has that Olympic level wrestling background? Granted, he doesn't use it as much as he used to but it's still something he has in his back pocket.
Rashad Evans: Yeah, it's gonna be really good for me especially because I've gotten away from my wrestling. It'll be good to get back to it be able to take the fight where I want to take the fight. If I want to take him down, then I'll take him down whenever I want. My wrestling is getting strong. It's only been a couple practices and my wrestling is already starting to get back up to a good category again.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmamania.com): Pressure is something people bring up with fighters pretty often and you mentioned that your back is against the wall with this fight and you fight better that way. What was a situation before where you felt like your back was against the wall and you rose to the occasion?
Rashad Evans: Oh man, before I even got to be in the sport for as long as I was, my back was against the wall because I wasn't really liked in the UFC. I needed to get every chance to move up the ladder and I had that chip on my shoulder thinking like, "I have to win this fight," and it was such a pressure that I put on myself and I felt like people were rooting against me so I felt like my back was against the wall. That's where I've always competed at my best. I just had to do it. This is where I like to be. I like being in a position where everyone's counting me out and I'd like to rise to the occasion again.
Rashad would like to thank his team, The Blackzilians, his management team ASM and Jaco Training Center. You can follow him on Twitter @SugaRashadEvans.