For long-time fans of MMA and more specifically the UFC, the light heavyweight division has been the most competitive division in the league’s history. Such pivotal figures such as Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Anderson Silva and Forrest Griffin have all competed under the division’s weight limit of 205 lbs. Looking back through history you can almost categorise each era with a former UFC Champion such as Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell. Without question guys like Ortiz and Liddell helped mould the division into something special due to their lengthy reigns atop the light heavyweight kingdom.
It has long been proven that a lengthy title reign helps establish a fighter from a mere competitor into a legend. It matters not that Ortiz continues to fight lesser competition today and Chuck Liddell lost the last 5 out his final 6 fights, fans regard these two as UFC legends and so they should. Yet there is one man who may not have gone on to a long lasting title reigns as his former opponents have but still helped build the light heavyweight division in the later years and beat almost every name fighter the UFC had to offer. Former Light Heavyweight Champion “Suga” Rashad Evans.
Rashad Evans debuted in the UFC as a contestant on the “Ultimate Fighter” reality TV series which is akin to WWE developmental league NXT. If the UFC is searching for tomorrow’s next main eventer, in a time where they have never been so desperate for one, then they will start up another TV series of TUF. Originally competing at Heavyweight “Suga” Rashad went the distance and became the TUF 2 Champion despite being one of the smallest men to compete in the entire competition. Rashad gained a reputation for being a little cocky and bumped heads with one of the main coaches of the series Matt Hughes. But the two have since settled their differences.
Winning the entire season at heavyweight was an impressive feat for a man of Rashad’s size yet he realised that if he wanted to become successful and have a long standing career then his best shot would be at a lower weight class. Without question this turned out to be one of the smartest moves Evans could have done and he built his entire career off of being a light heavyweight fighter.
Largely seen as just a wrestler with no other tools in his arsenal it took a little time for Rashad to capture UFC fans attention. When he took on newcomer Sean Salmon at UFC Fight Night most were expecting a dull contest. But in what was considered an upset Evans knocked out Salmon with a head kick in the second round in what is still regarded today as one of the greatest head-kick knockouts of all time. The spectacular knockout spring-boarded Rashad up in terms of competition and from then on he made his way through the upper echelon of the UFC’s light heavyweight division. Slowly starting to establish himself as a top tier contender Rashad made a huge statement by knocking out UFC pioneer Chuck Liddell at UFC 88 in devastating fashion.
There were no questions after this. Rashad Evans was a big time player in the UFC. The ferocity of the knockout earned Rashad the opportunity to face former TUF 1 champion and then current UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Forrest Griffin for the coveted gold at UFC 92. The fight stood atop the marquee for what remains as one of the most star studded cards in UFC history. Rashad came back from two rounds of being dominated with a third round TKO of Forrest to capture the UFC light heavyweight crown and cap off a phenomenal year.
After an incredible rise to the top with many knockouts of pivotal UFC figures it seemed as if Rashad Evans was poised for great things as the company’s champion. However his toughest test to date would arrive in the form of karate fighter Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida. To this day one of the most elusive fighters in the game, no one knew how to figure out “The Dragon.” Rashad, looking to be the first to decipher the puzzle, became just another victim of Machida and fell to Lyoto after a flurry of strikes at UFC 98. What made the victory for Machida all the more incredulous is that flashes of the “old” Rashad reared its ugly head and he taunted Machida during the fight telling him his “hands were made of pillows.” Pillows stuffed with dynamite would’ve been a more appropriate metaphor at that point.
Suffering his first professional loss Rashad showed class in defeat and was determined to come back better than ever. You can point to UFC 108 in his fight against Thiago Silva as the fight where he matured and learned from prior experiences. Going back to his wrestling roots Rashad out-grappled Silva to a majority decision win after three rounds of not particularly exciting action. It wasn’t the most entertaining fight of the evening but you can’t blame Rashad for wanting to get back to his winning ways and he demonstrated a more methodical approach to his opponent.
Seeing as he got rocked in the fight by Silva you could argue that if he tried the same thing here as he did against Lyoto Machida he would’ve suffered the same fate. Moving back into the winning column, Rashad moved on to fight Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in what was a blockbuster PPV main event after one of the greatest series of TUF ever produced. This was UFC at its finest with two polarising personalities who dislike each other wanting to settle it inside the ring to determine the better man. Settle it they did after Rashad won again via unanimous decision after three rounds.
After losing his title to Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans was back to establishing himself as a top tier contender. His next two opponents included former rival Tito Ortiz and phenomenal wrestler Phil Davis before taking on former training partner Jon “Bones” Jones. It was the fight with Jones that you can make a case for changing his career trajectory or should have done. Going into the fight as the underdog as Jones had shown in dominating performances over Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and former Evans opponent Lyoto Machida, Evans had everything to lose here. A crushing defeat by his former training partner would’ve reduced his chances at getting another title shot anytime soon.
Evans was in grave danger of becoming the light heavyweight division’s “gatekeeper” – that is the guy who tests the rest of the division in preparation for the champion. Evans lost a five round unanimous decision to Jon Jones thus failing in his bid to recapture his crown. Since then he has gone on to defeat Dan Henderson and Chael Sonnen to prove that he is still a relevant figure and one of the best in the 205 lb division.
Now granted his loss to Jon Jones wasn’t the definitive loss that Lyoto Machida and Rampage Jackson suffered but it was still a decisive victory for Jones. Evans never had the champion in any danger whatsoever nor was the fight particularly exciting. What would be an interesting scenario and one which has saved many a great UFC fighter is a change in weight class. Many past fighters have found new life by changing division. You only need look at former UFC Lightweight Champion BJ Penn. One of the smaller guys in the welterweight division, he made the choice to drop down to 155 lb and become the undisputed king of that weight class and put that division on the map.
At 35 years old time is running out for Rashad Evans. He doesn’t look as if he is going to retire any day now but you have to question his logic for remaining at 205 lbs. As much as you can understand the man’s desire to wanting to rematch with former training partner Jon Jones you have to wonder would the outcome be any different a second time round? Jones has proved to be a beast at light heavyweight and has finished more than his fair share of credible challengers even from other divisions such as middleweight standout Vitor Belfort. This is why a move down to 185 lb would be the best thing Evans could do. There are fights there that fans would salvage over. Outside of Alexander Gustaffson and a Jon Jones rematch there aren’t further credible light heavyweight contenders left for Evans to tangle with. Meanwhile down at 185 there are plenty of unchartered waters worth testing. A re-match with Michael Bisping would be different than their first outing. If Tim Kennedy makes a return there is an intriguing match there. Not to forget Mark Munoz, Luke Rockhold, Vitor Belfort or heck even Anderson Silva.
Silva vs. Evans was in the pipeline at one stage and seeing as Silva agreed to face Nick Diaz there is no reason they cannot arrange for Rashad to have a crack at him. It would be an interesting fight for both men. What’s more important is that there is scope for Rashad Evans to get in a title run at 185. Again at the age of 35 there aren’t going to be many title runs left in the former light heavyweight king’s tank. You have to wonder in his heart if he believes he can beat Jon Jones. No doubt he does as he would’ve already made the decision to move on to another division so what will more than likely happen is Evans will attempt one more run at Jones and take it from there. It would be a shame if he played out his entire UFC run at light heavyweight as there is so much more he can offer the company at a lower weight class.
Given that he’s proved he can be competitive at a heavyweight level Rashad Evans has already proved doubters wrong in the past and has done so in spectacular fashion. If he wants to make the most of the rest of his career, he’d be a fool to not even entertain a drop down. It could be just the shot in the arm he needs to bring back the old “Suga” Rashad Evans.