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Rashad Evans looking to prove the critics wrong again

Rashad Evans wasn’t supposed to be here.

You know, in the main event of the UFC’s biggest pay-per-view of the year and one victory away from becoming the UFC’s light heavyweight champion.

An undersized heavyweight facing the once-highly regarded heavyweight prospect Brad Imes in the finals for the second season of The Ultimate Fighter, Evans was picked by many to lose. However, Evans showed heart and moxie and battled his way to a split decision victory and a six-figure UFC contract.

Evans then proceeded to go 4-0 following his official induction into the UFC, with a notable win over TUF 1 finalist Stephan Bonnar at UFC Fight Night 5.

Following a highlight reel high kick knockout over Sean Salmon at UFC Fight Night 8, the decision was made to push Evans up the ladder and into a headlining PPV bout against former UFC light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz.

Despite Ortiz having peaked several years earlier, many once again counted Evans out. Ortiz is a fighter not known for having self-esteem issues and appeared as confident and cocky as ever leading up to their UFC 73 showdown.

A funny thing happened though, as Evans once again defied the odds and managed to grind out a draw. The fight itself wasn’t much to watch but by not losing, Evans was able to preserve his undefeated record while proving that he was more than just a reality show winner.

Following the Ortiz bout, Evans would once again find himself in a featured pay-per-view encounter at UFC 78 against a fellow former TUF winner, Michael Bisping. Pundits were critical of the UFC’s decision to go with Evans vs. Bisping as the show’s main event and the lackluster bout only provided more ammunition to their argument.

While failing to earn critical praise, Evans still earned a split decision victory and advanced his record to an impressive 11-0-1 mark. However, it would be a full 10 months before Evans would fight again.

The former Michigan State Spartan was pegged for main event duty once again at UFC 88 this past September. In spite of his headlining slot, Evans was seemingly cast in the role of sacrificial lamb and positioned to lose against former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell.

Having lost two out of his last three bouts, the UFC was looking to get Liddell a safe win against a respected opponent. The UFC wanted to position Liddell to close the year in the main event of their biggest PPV of the year against new UFC light heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin.

Even though he was winning fights, Evans was perfect for the role because the vast majority of his victories were coming in less than impressive fashion. Against Liddell’s strong takedown defense and heavy hands, he seemed to be tailor made for “The Iceman.”

But wouldn’t you know, Evans once again defied the odds when he delivered the “knockout heard around the world” following a big right cross delivered on the button that left Liddell laying lifeless on the mat at 1:51 of round 2.

Despite holding the title of season two TUF heavyweight champion and a gaudy 12-0-1 record, Evans by and large is viewed as an overachiever. Despite a Division I wrestling pedigree at Michigan State, Evans was never viewed as a top-level wrestler, as not all wrestlers are created equal. While Evans had a good career at MSU, he was hardly great. He doesn’t come with the NCAA championship credentials of a Brock Lesnar and doesn’t possess the world class takedown ability of a Josh Koscheck.

So what has allowed Evans to achieve so much success in MMA and prove the critics wrong at every turn? It could have to do with the fact that for Evans, wrestling has only been a foundation for him, as he has utilized a wide array of MMA skills en route to earning a shot at the UFC light heavyweight title.

“Wrestling is a big foundation for me because I think in every fight there’s a point where I lock up with somebody,” Evans began to explain during a recent conference call to promote UFC 92. “So having that advantage with the wrestling background gave me a big edge over a lot of the competition early on. But I now I think it’s at a point where fighters are more well-rounded and I’m going to need more than just wrestling to bring me to the next level.”

Another major reason for Evans’ success has been the guidance of Greg Jackson, widely considered one of the premier trainers in all of MMA. Under Jackson, Evans has been able to develop solid boxing to complement his wrestling base. But in spite of Evans’ impressive KO against Liddell, the teacher and the student aren’t resting on their laurels as they continue to try and hone his striking.

“One area where I’d still like to improve on is my striking where it’s just simply outstanding and no one can deal with it,” said Evans. “It’s very important (to have highly developed striking skills) because as an MMA fighter we have to worry about all kind of attacks coming at all kind of different angles. You have to worry about the elbows and you have to worry about the knees along with the leg kicks.”

And while Evans has relied on fancy footwork in his recent fights, he attributes his wrestling background as giving him the luxury of taking chances when it comes to his standup.

“When you have wrestling as your background you learn to use it as a defense so you’re not going to be taken down by somebody,” Evans stated. “So you can take more chances on your feet and slug it out.”

Coming into UFC 92’s main event this Saturday vs. the incumbent champion Griffin, Evans is once again being picked to lose by a great deal of the industry’s leading experts. It’s hard to blame pundits for their stance, as the chips are stacked against Evans once again.

And as Evans finds himself on the horizon of the biggest opportunity of his fight career during a time in which many are celebrating the holidays by spending time with their families and stuffing their faces. For Evans, fighting during Christmas week means cutting weight and time away from his family. However, it’s a realtiy that the Lansing native has come to accept.

“It was (difficult) at first when I first thought about it,” Evans began to respond when asked by a reporter about the challenges of training and fighting during the holidays. “But I’ve been in camp for seven weeks now and it kind of just faded away. All of the holidays have kind of lost their significance and it’s just going to be another day for me.”

Another obstacle that Evans will have to overcome is a size disadvantage. Evans is listed at 5’11” compared to Griffin, who is listed at 6’3”. Breaking the two down from a body frame perspective, Griffin is a fighter who has cut down from as much as 230 pounds. Meanwhile, published reports in the past have indicated that UFC Vice President of Talent Relations Joe Silva had asked Evans to consider a move to middleweight. When the two meet in the center of the Octagon for their obligatory pre-fight instructions, it’s very likely that we’re going to see a significant difference in size.

While Evans is facing less than ideal conditions, it would be a mistake to count out a man who has proven the critics wrong at almost every turn. After all, Evans does have several elements working in his favor, as Griffin was quick to point out that Evans perhaps is working with the best sparring partner he could have for this fight.

That partner is none other than Keith Jardine, the last man to beat Griffin after he TKO’d the current champ at 4:41 of round 1 during their 2006 bout at UFC 66. Jardine has been working with Evans on a daily basis, mimicking Griffin and helping his teammate prepare for every scenario he might encounter on Saturday. Come fight time, Griffin knows his opposition will be well-prepared.

“They always come up with a real great strategy,” conceded Griffin. “Keith has fought me before and knocked me out before. That’s got to help having a guy to tell you ‘Oh, this is how I got him.’ I think me and Keith stylistically are pretty similar. He’s probably a good guy to have around if you’re going to fight me.”

Griffin will enter UFC 92 the favorite but should Evans manage yet again defy the odds and pull off the upset, none of us shouldn’t be surprised in the least.

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