Rashad Evans and an Elegy for an Era

Fightland Blog

By Jeff Harder

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Rashad Evans's eyes glistened. His voice rasped with emotion. It was moments after Evans, a former light heavyweight titleholder, lost to Glover Teixeira at UFC on Fox 19. Teixeira's left hand sent him down, his right kept him there, and there were hard questions to consider after he got up. "Fighting—it used to come just so easy, so naturally," Evans told Fox Sports. "Now I feel like I'm fighting against myself."

Despite the inherent brutality of knockouts, Evans didn't endure an especially jarring end—if you watch MMA, you've seen variations of that finish hundreds of times. It was only the second time Evans was knocked out, seven years after the first. Meanwhile, he isn't tumbling off the marquee for a paltry payday as his chin turns to glass and his friends and family beg him to stop like some cautionary tale. Yet the news of Evans's latest loss—part of a 2-4 slide in the last four years—has drawn melancholy and empathy from around the fight sphere, from writers, fans, even at least one nemesis.

Why? Maybe because we remember watching Evans and his generation ascend before it turned upside down, right there on our TV screen.

If you want to feel old, remember that Rashad Evans debuted in the UFC more than a decade ago on the sophomore season of The Ultimate Fighter. Back in 2005, the show's contrivances were still novel in the reality TV wasteland: instead of young men sharing a house and only threatening to punch each other in the face, TUF required that they actually do it. And while the UFC's biggest names at the time forged their mythologies by fighting in Japan or in cable-blackout obscurity, TUF allowed an audience to watch a new generation of fighters write its origin story week after week, one exhibition bout in an eerily quiet Las Vegas gym after the next. That meant that an audience could see a fighter's career build and unravel in near totality.

In Evans' case, he was a Michigan State wrestler with five pro fights—fought over the span of three nights—by the time he arrived on TUF. The undersized heavyweight dark horse in the house, he beat every opponent by decision, including the behemoth Brad Imes to win the finale. He improved in every fight afterward, eking past Sam Hoger and Stephan Bonnar, pounding out Jason Lambert and Sean Salmon, and holding his own against Tito Ortiz before hitting his prime as a consummate wrestle-boxer. Against Chuck Liddell, Evans delivered the first (and most brutal) of three consecutive knockouts that sent the Iceman into retirement. Against Forrest Griffin, he crushed his fellow TUF alum in the third round to take the light heavyweight title. It was a short-lived reign—Lyoto Machida knocked Evans out a few months later—but he followed with another four straight wins.

All the while, Evans became a polarizing figure for no good reason. Much of the derision toward Evans was racially motivated, and detractors latched onto moments like the time he grabbed his crotch and blew a kiss at Griffin mid-fight, using those tame transgressions as evidence that he was bad for the sport. In reality, Evans was a true professional who calibrated his approach to his role—studio analyst, Pay-Per-View salesman, combatant—and was a crisis-free employee for the UFC. But Evans was smart and outspoken. Listening to him lecture Quinton "Rampage" Jackson about the racial dimensions of his shtick ahead of their UFC 114 grudge match was illuminating. "You perpetuate stupidness," Evans said. "'Oh, don't use those big words, I don't know what that is.' Motherfucker, you're not stupid—stop acting like you're stupid. Stop acting like just because you're black, you're stupid. I can't stand that attitude." He was also a trailblazer: while Jon Jones still nurtured his good-guy persona, Evans was among the first to call him a fake, uprooting his longtime camp in Albuquerque because of his onetime teammate's betrayal.

Four years removed from his failed title challenge to Jones, the end for Evans is closer than ever. And at 36 years old, coming off a two-year injury layoff, a decision defeat to Ryan Bader in October, and the one-sided loss to Teixeira, he's as far away from holding that title as he was a decade ago. But light heavyweight isn't the talent-rich glamour division it was in the late 2000s: one or two meaningful wins, a little misfortune for the guys clustered at the top, Jon Jones exiting the division, and Evans becomes a title hunter once again. The Teixeira knockout notwithstanding, Evans is a remarkably undamaged veteran, and his name still resonates: he headlined a Fox card six years after his non-title fight with Jackson became one of the UFC's best-selling pay-per-views. Should he leave the UFC, he'd mow down much of the Bellator 205-pound roster. And if he opts for retirement, he could enjoy a second act as an analyst or coach, working on the periphery of the game where he was a champion.

That's where the melancholy comes in: the history of MMA is suddenly long enough that we haven't only watched its single-discipline pioneers cede to a generation of well-rounded fighters, but that first generation has largely come and gone too. Evans emerged as MMA edged into the mainstream and became a fixture on TV, and his fight-to-fight progress—a college wrestler who learned and grew until he became just the second true TUF competitor to win a UFC belt—symbolized the ascendance of the sport itself. Now, watching the downside of his career, it's a cutting reminder that that time is long gone. It's become the province of nostalgia. If fighters, writers, and fans feel somber at Evans potentially hanging up his gloves, it's because we're getting old too, and the end awaits us all.

After the loss to Teixeira, Evans soldiered into the post-fight press conference—rare for recent knockout victims—and composed himself behind the microphone. He'd made no decision whether to fight on or to retire, but he opened the window to his thoughts a little wider. "When you're at this point right now, you just gotta reevaluate everything. I don't want to lose hope. I don't want to lose heart in fighting because it's what I like to do. But at the end of the day, you know something's gotta change. I've gotta do something better. It's embarrassing, it's sad, but welcome to being a fighter." The fall is there for all to see. Once upon a time, so was the rise.


Check out these related stories:

Teixeira Starches Evans, Japanese MMA Continues Sad Spiral of Elderly Abuse

The Work: Blackzilians

Fightland Meets: Rashad Evans