What are we to make of those in the shadow of the truly great?
In MMA, we are very quick to anoint. Virtually every time a title changes hands, we like to mark it as a changing of the guard, a moment that solidifies the title holder as the standard bearer for both today and tomorrow. Think of the current slate of UFC champions, which one of them would be a betting underdog in a fight against their top contender? One, maybe two. And yet, it seems highly unlikely that in 6 months, a UFC title belt won’t change hands. We almost always overestimate a champion’s staying power and capacity for greatness, even if the track record tells us otherwise. So when we eventually look back on a fighter’s career, what are we to make of those fighters who were branded as transcendent, but were quickly dislodged by someone else?
The earliest iterations of 145 under the Zuffa banner, illustrate this point. Urijah Faber was the star of the WEC brand and was at the time thought, almost universally, to be the best fighter at that weight class. When Mike Thomas Brown ended Faber’s title run, MMA-at-large was quick to project Brown as a dominant force moving forward, he had just beaten Faber after all. And so, when Jose Aldo shows up and beats the brakes off Brown, we of course have to herald Aldo as the new king of the division and obviously that was the right move, but that means that over the course of some 54 weeks, there had been three dominant forces at 145 crowned. Obviously Faber had an extensive run, and so did Aldo, but what are we to make of Brown? Were we too quick to elevate him to the upper pantheon? Was his run a fluke? Or perhaps, his talent, as great as it may have been, was simply eclipsed by one that was greater, a fighter more transcendent.
All that said, this isn’t about Mike Brown. This is about Rashad Evans, who like Brown, was lionized after reaching the pinnacle of his division and then, almost as if it never happened, was summarily dumped. Outed as an also-ran, an impostor, someone who’s greatness was unwarranted and fleeting. Is that a fair? Probably not, but is it accurate? I’m not sure.
Rashad Evans was always tabbed to be a great fighter. The very earliest parts of his career weren’t spectacular and often times were uninspiring, but everyone who saw him before his UFC debut knew that if he put it together, he was going to be very good, at the very least. His wrestling ability, at the regional MMA level, was enough to carry him to victories over the likes of Jamie Jara and Hector Ramirez, tough guys who acted as regional measuring sticks. Those performances on regional shows in California were enough to get Evans a slot on the second season of The Ultimate Fighter. Winning that show, coupled with wins over Sam Hoger, Stephan Bonnar, and Jason Lambert cemented him as a player in the UFC, albeit a less than exciting fighter. His headkick knockout over Sean Salmon was one for the highlight reel and a glimpse at the kind of destructive power, also on evidence in the Lambert fight, Rashad was capable of. His draw with Tito Ortiz and his win over Michael Bisping cemented him as a headliner and future title contender.
At this point we reach an impasse. Any discussion of Rashad Evans really revolves around two poles, the dominant forces at 205 before and after his peak run: Chuck Liddell and Jon Jones. It is impossible to discuss Rashad’s rise without discussion the descent of Chuck and impossible to discuss Jon Jones’ rise without talk of Rashad’s fall. Frankly, the whole discussion around Rashad comes in the period of those two fights, the win over Liddell and the loss to Jones, everything before and after pales in comparison to that run in terms of relevancy and impact.
But, before we delve deeper into Rashad, we have to spend a little time discussing the nature of greatness. The truly great, those that leave substantive and indelible marks on history, produce and are themselves the product of a vacuum of sorts. The truly great, either because all that came before them were mediocre or perhaps because their talent was so immense that their peers simply seem mediocre by comparison, seem to exist at a higher level than those that came before them. When the period of greatness ends, what is left is a fallow period. A period where everyone that follows doesn’t seem to measure up to the previous standard bearer. The torch is rarely passed. The torch of one great is extinguished, and the next person has to go out and forge their own path, it is not as linear of a process as we’d like to make it out to be.
Now that we’ve gotten all existential, we can return to talking about no holds barred human homosexual skinhead cockfighting. When Rashad met Chuck Liddell at UFC 88, Chuck was certainly on the downside of his career, back-to-back losses to Rampage Jackson and Keith Jardine had shown that Chuck, more than likely, wasn’t going to make another run for the title, but a win over Wanderlei Silva showed that he still had something left in the tank. Rashad made sure that Chuck’s tank would never appear anywhere close to full again.
It was a star making performance, an absolutely devastating knockout of one of the sports’ biggest stars, a Fred Sanford inspired celebration followed, and then inexplicably a t-shirt with Bill Gates’ mug shot. It was the sort of performance that you would expect out of the next great light heavyweight, and to many, that is what Rashad was. It seemed to be a foregone conclusion that Rashad was the next dominant force in the UFC, cast from the same mold, at least as far as fighting was concerned as Liddell. A fighter with tremendous power in both his hands and his feet, and a good enough wrestler to dictate wherever the fight took place.
And so when Rashad fought Forrest Griffin for the title, three months later, it really was a foregone conclusion. Rashad walked away with the title, finishing Griffin in the third round and cementing himself as not only the best 205er in the world, but one of the sports top pound-for-pound fighters. It is easy to look back now, knowing how things played out, and see Rashad as a transitional champion, easy to see him as a cut below the eventual crop of elite fighters, but at the time nobody was ringing that bell, and that takes us back to the original point of this whole deal: were we wrong? I still don’t know.
The Machida Era was quick and roundly mocked, but the way that Lyoto Machida quickly and violently dispatched Rashad can’t go without mention. It was masterful and, just like so many times before, it seemed to signal a changing of the guard. Karate was back. Dojos could stop pretending to teach Juijitsu and get back to breaking boards, the way God intended. It didn’t last, and eventually a true champion emerged, in the shape of Jon Jones.
After the Machida loss, the first of his career, Rashad put together a rather sterling resume. Thiago Silva, Rampage Jackson, Tito Ortiz, and Phil Davis are certainly impressive and perhaps deserve more words and analysis than I’m going to give them, but this is about greatness and as good as some of those fighters are, none of those fighters, occupy the same space as Jon Jones.
Rashad entered the fight with Jones as an underdog, his own camp choosing to coach Jones over Rashad, even though Evans’ tenure with Greg Jackson dated back much further than Jones’. But, it wasn’t some foregone conclusion, Rashad had only lost once prior, and given what became of the Machida Era, many chalked it up to a fluke. Given the run that Rashad was on, it wasn’t out of the question either. Those four wins were, and still are, one of the best stretches in Light Heavyweight history, and yet when Rashad got in there with Jones, he didn’t have much to offer. He lost every round. It was demoralizing, not only in that he was unable to do anything of much effect in the fight, but surely to see your own camp, or rather what used to your camp, celebrating with the man who just tore you apart, has to be one of the worst feelings in prize fighting.
We didn’t know it at the time, but looking back that was really the end of Rashad. Sure, he went on to have a slew of good wins, but he never got back to the title picture, he never came up in the discussion of pound-for-pound fighters. He had been so severely and totally eclipsed by Jones that be became an also ran in the division he was supposed to rule over.
Now, as we look back on Rashad’s career, one that ended with five straight losses and a misguided cut to 185, what are we to make of it. Was he a good, but not great fighter? I don’t think so. I think that history may not look back at Rashad as favorably as it perhaps should. Does his resume stand up their with the titans of his division, no. That seems to be a fact that we can’t deny. If we account for the last 20 years of this sport, Rashad doesn’t occupy the same space as Chuck Liddell, Wanderlei Silva, Jon Jones, maybe not even the same space as Tito Ortiz and Daniel Cormier. He doesn’t have the longevity of those men. However, if we change out focus from the macro to a more micro one, Rashad’s run; starting with his win of Chuck Liddell and ending with his loss to Jon Jones, is still one of the most impressive in this sport, it just so happens to have occurred in a time of flux, in the valley of two of the greatest fighters to grace this sport.
If this is it for Rashad, and I hope it is, I’m interested to see how it gets framed. I doubt that time will be kind to Rashad. The further removed we get from these acutal events, the less the particulars matter. Many, it seems, will choose to write him off as transitional, a guy who kept the belt warm while a truly great fighter achieved greatness. I suppose that is true, but for me, I think we were right about Rashad, he was one of the best fighters of his time, it is just that his time happened to coincide with someone who was more great. A generational talent is often eclipsed by a one-in-a-lifetime talent, and that is what happened to Rashad. His greatness was simply eclipsed and I don’t think that makes him any less great.