Eight years after he broke into the sport by winning “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show, Rashad Evans is still a headliner in mixed martial arts.
His next fight, however, could determine how long he stays in that position. And critics are questioning whether Evans, 33, is the same fighter he was 16 months ago when he last won an Ultimate Fighting Championship bout.
Evans, a Niagara Wheatfield High School graduate and former All-American wrestler at Niagara County Community College, will face Dan Henderson in a three-round bout June 15 in Winnipeg. The match was promoted to the main event of the UFC 161 pay-per-view card last month after Renan Barão pulled out of his bantamweight title defense against Eddie Wineland due to injury.
“I feel great going into this fight,” Evans said last week during a break from his training in Delray Beach, Fla. “I feel fast, I feel quick, I feel pretty.”
Henderson, 42, is a former Olympic wrestler with a 29-9 record in his 15-year career. He has won championships in the Strikeforce and Pride organizations, but never in the UFC. He had to pull out of a September fight against UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones due to injury and subsequently lost his next fight against Lyoto Machida in February.
Coming off consecutive losses, Evans (17-3-1) is hopeful that a victory will thrust him back into title contention. Evans, a former light heavyweight champion, lost a unanimous decision last April against Jones, a Rochester native and Evans’ former sparring partner. Had Evans defeated Antonio Rogério Nogueira in February, he would have earned a title shot against middleweight champion Antonio Silva, assuming Evans could get down to 185 pounds for the first time in his UFC career.
But Evans’ lackluster performance in the decision loss to Nogueira drew criticism from UFC President Dana White. “I like Rashad a lot. He’s a good guy, a smart guy. But he’s lost that hunger,” White said following the fight in Las Vegas. “He’s lost that desire and drive, and he needs to get it back. There’s no doubt about it. He needs to get hungry again.”
White also was disturbed by reports that Evans had been contemplating retirement. “If that word even comes out of your mouth in this business, it’s a negative,” White said. “The fact that he even said the ‘R’ word shows you where his head is at and what he’s thinking.”
Evans later revealed that a hand injury made him unaggressive in the Nogueira fight, and that the retirement talk came from misunderstood comments he made about enjoying the analyst work he does for ESPN and wanting to do more broadcasting after his athletic career is over.
Having been paid $300,000 for his last fight, according to figures released by the Nevada state athletic commission, Evans is in no hurry to leave a sport in which he still has such earning potential.
“I want to go for as long as God blesses me with the ability to train hard and express myself like this,” he said.
But a third straight loss could push Evans down on future cards and jeopardize his status with the UFC.
“In the fight business, you’re only as good as your next fight,” Evans told MMA Mania in March. “If you lose two or three, then you’re done. My manager, Bill Robinson, always says, ‘You’re either one fight away from getting a title shot and becoming champion or you’re two losses away from being cut from UFC.’ ”
Evans said he has felt this way heading into every fight of his career. “No matter if I won 10 fights in a row, the fight fans will say the last fight really wasn’t that good, if you have another performance like that, you might be done. That’s the way the MMA community works.”