LAS VEGAS – After winning the UFC light-heavyweight title in December, Rashad Evans made only a brief appearance at his Las Vegas after-party.
“I didn’t have any celebration in me. I didn’t have anything to drink, I just sat there and everybody was making a fuss of me and taking pictures and I was really just overwhelmed,” he recalled. “I went back to my room really early and I went to sleep, and I woke up in the middle of the night and I looked in a mirror and I was like ‘Man I’m the champion.’
“It was weird. It wasn’t like how I expected it to be, I thought I’d just be overwhelmed with just emotion and crying, you know how people fall down on the floor and stuff. I was expecting to be like that. I just didn’t feel it at the time.”
Five months later, Evans (18-0-1) faces Brazil’s Lyoto Machida (14-0) on Saturday night at UFC 98 in the first defence of the 205-pound title he took from Forrest Griffin at UFC 92.
Evans, 29, is an intriguing mix. There is no shortage of swagger to the man and he can trash-talk with the best of them if provoked. Yet ask him where his championship belt is and he has to think.
“Right now, I don’t know,” he said when quizzed about its whereabouts. “Somewhere in my room, it’s like in the closet or something.”
Evans is still growing into his role as champion but insists his feet are still firmly glued to the ground. There are more media commitments and he’s recognized more when he goes out. But he says life remains the same other than that.
“It’s very easy to get caught up in the hollowness of fame,” he told a fan question-and-answer session prior to UFC 94 in January. “Once you start reading your own press clippings and start to start feeling yourself more, like ‘Dang I am that good,’ that’s when thing start to go away.
“But I’m just not that type of person in general, so I don’t think it will be hard for me to stay grounded. Besides if you see my friends, they’re like assholes,” he said, laughing. “They’ll let me know real quick if I get out of pocket, they keep me grounded. They keep me real.”
Asked if he treated himself to anything in the wake of the title, he answers dryly: “I treated myself to three training camps.”
In the tradition of coach Greg Jackson’s camp, Evans helped Canadian Georges St. Pierre, Nate (The Great) Marquardt and Keith (The Dean of Mean) Jardine prepare for their fights, repaying them for helping him get ready for his bouts.
At five foot 11, Evans is a small light-heavyweight. Griffin, for example, is six foot three. But Evans is solid.
“You look at me, from my waist up, I’m like a 170-pounder but my legs, they’re heavy, man,” said Evans, who is indeed chunky from the waist down.
He normally walks around at 225 pounds when not fighting, dropping down to 215 while training. His weight cut was far more severe at college, where he wrestled at 174 pounds.
Inside the cage, Evans is in constant motion, bouncing on his feet, his head always moving to present a more difficult target. A powerful counter-puncher, he lures opponents in and then strikes – often with a wicked overhand right, helped by what seems to be an Inspector Gadget-like arm.
Hard work has helped along the way. Prior to meeting Tito Ortiz at UFC 73, he was matched against Sean Salmon and spent eight weeks practising his kicking. He finished Salmon with a vicious head kick, knocking him out cold after just 66 seconds.
Like a science fiction alien, Evans is constantly evolving. He has smarts too. After taking a beating from Griffin kicks in their title fight, he came out in the third round looking for them. He caught one and knocked Griffin down, which proved to be the beginning of the end.
Evans has style outside the cage as well as in.
In the “Countdown” TV show that set up the marquee UFC 94 matchup between St. Pierre and B.J. Penn, a stylish Evans was shown waltzing into a Montreal gym to help his friend train for the Hawaiian. Evans looked like he had just walked off stage with Lenny Kravitz.
“My friend texted me and he said ‘Man we should change your name to Chilly Mos’ and I said ‘Chilly Mos?’ He said ‘Yeah because you were the most chilled.’ And I said all right,” said Evans, who clearly relishes the story.
But sometimes the chill disappears. Against Griffin, he reacted to a second-round flurry by blowing the champion a kiss and reaching down to grab his crotch.
“A lot of people were mad about that, but honestly I didn’t mean any disrespect to Forrest . . . Sometimes a fight becomes a fight,” said Evans, explaining he was just trying to show Griffin and the fans he wasn’t going anywhere.
“He was kneeing me, kneeing me, and I was blocking it and the crowd was just yelling for Forrest and it kind of made me mad. I was kind of insulted, like ‘You think you’re going to finish me right here, right now? You think you’re going to finish me?”‘
Evans turned a sandpaper-like tongue on Ortiz, a major-league trash-talker himself, after their draw in July 2007.
“Take off your glasses, let your face tell the story,” Evans urged Ortiz, who wore sunglasses to hide facial damage.
“How about the end of the third round when you just lay down like a little bitch and got pounded out?” he asked.
There’s sympathy as well as smack, though.
Asked about 44-year-old Mark Coleman’s fight with 28-year-old Mauricio (Shogun) Rua at UFC 93, Evans spoke of his respect for Coleman’s battle against fatigue during the bout.
“I know what it’s like to be in that position, when you’re that tired, it’s like you’re on an island and there’s nothing that anybody can do to help you. And you just want help. You want help so bad and it’s like you’re in the middle of the ocean drowning and you’re just looking and nobody can help you and you are just exhausted. And he (Coleman) had that look in his face and I was like ‘Dang I know that feeling,’ but he fought through it.
“And to fight like that, at that age, man he’s got tremendous heart.”
Evans confesses to nerves before Ortiz and even Salmon, despite the fact he was one of Evans’ least-heralded opponents. But Evans says the televised main event fight was the most nervous he had ever been, because he knew he was expected to win against a lesser opponent.
“There’s nothing like going into a fight where you’re supposed to beat somebody. . . . But when you fight guys that are tough too, if you lose, hey I lost to Forrest Griffin. You can be excused for that but if you lose to somebody that don’t got a name, then that’s no good.”
Since winning Season 2 of “The Ultimate Fighter” as a heavyweight, Evans is 7-0-1 in the UFC with such high-profile scalps as Griffin, Chuck (The Iceman) Liddell and Michael Bisping. The former collegiate wrestler has turned himself into an MMA fighter who has won four of his last five fights by knockout.
He credits that recent striking success to confidence, knowing “I can end someone’s night on my feet.”
Evans divides his time between Albuquerque, N.M., where Jackson’s camp is situated, and Lansing, Mich., where he attended Michigan State, wrestling for the Spartans while earning a psychology degree.
While at school he worked as a hospital security guard, a job he says helped open his eyes.
“It was quite the experience,” he recalled. “You got to see life and death. We had to go and put people in the morgue, and get people out. You saw all kinds of things.”
Family is central to Evans, who got married a week after the Ortiz fight and has a daughter who lives in Montreal. He has five sisters and three brothers and was raised by a single mother.
“She worked really hard to make sure we had whatever we needed, but we didn’t really have too much extra stuff,” Evans said. “Yes, it was tough at times. It was definitely tough at times. But having the brothers and sisters really helped a lot because we really helped each other during the tough times.”
Evans’ teammates do the same thing. St. Pierre and fellow Canadians David Loiseau and Jonathan Goulet were just some of the fighters that came to Albuquerque to help Evans prepare for Machida.
“That’s been the biggest success of the team is that we all look out for each other. We don’t get jealous or get caught up in anything else, it’s just all about getting the work in for each other.”