How long has it been since the world has seen Rashad Evans last fight? Do the words “Chael Sonnen” ring a bell?
Well, after nearly two years of sitting on the sidelines with nagging knee injuries, the former UFC light heavyweight champion, and winner of The Ultimate Fighter Season Two, will finally be making a return to action this Saturday night at UFC 192. As one of the highlights of the main card, the fifth-ranked light heavyweight will be facing fourth-ranked Ryan Bader in a match that is surprisingly not a sequel.
Both Evans and Bader are former TUF champions, are former NCAA Division I wrestlers, have fought the “who’s who” of the UFC light heavyweights, and have been in the Octagon at least 16 times in their respective careers. Each fighter has exhibited knockout power, the ability to go the distance, and a proficiency in wrestling, but there is one glaring difference in their many performances. While Bader has been knocked out twice and submitted twice, Evans has only been stopped once in 23 outings, and that was a 2009 knockout loss to Lyoto Machida in his only title defense since taking the belt from Forrest Griffin back in December 2008. So, the first question is: will he come back with the same durability?
Although Evans has been on the sidelines for a couple years, he is 36 years old and has been training with a wide range of athletic abilities at The Blackzilians for years. Not only is he getting looks from heavy strikers and grapplers like recent UFC title contender Anthony Johnson, a whole stable of K-1 kickboxers and several Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts, he has always had that durability to go five rounds. As a lifelong wrestler, this quality was being drilled into his mind and body before he ever even hit a mitt, and that’s not something you lose to ring rust.
Evans may come out slow on Saturday night, but don’t expect that to last long. Bader is a quick starter – almost too quick as he also found out the hard way at the hands of Machida – and a more highly credentialed wrestler, but his climb has been slow and his jaw can be a problem. Currently riding a four-fight winning streak, the biggest thing the NCAA All-American and PAC-10 conference champion has going in his favor is momentum, but Evans has seen that and everything else before. That naturally poses the second question: does Evans have the gusto to come in cold and slow Bader’s momentum?
That’s a tough question to answer. Bader may be on a streak, but it was four decisions, the last of which was split against Phil Davis, who the UFC cut shortly thereafter. In fact, it’s been even longer than Evans’ layoff since Bader last finished an opponent. Sure, he has momentum, but it’s not the same momentum that someone carries after four stoppages in a row. In fact, going that long that many times in a row can age a fighter quickly. Bader’s last four fights combined have consumed over 173% more cage time than Ronda Rousey’s entire career. That’s a lot of miles on the chassis. Sure, it comes with a great deal of experience, but Evans’ body has been resting and rehabilitating that whole time. Bader is not the type of guy who understands the word quit, but a refreshed Evans could be just the one to put the skids on his streak.
Rashad Evans is a perennial contender in the light heavyweight division, and the UFC brass feels good enough about giving him a top-five opponent after a very long layoff. Are they attempting to pare the roster of the aging fighter or attempting to ride the wave of resurgence that elder fighters like Josh Barnett and Andrei Arlovski have been riding in 2015? The world soon will see as Rashad Evans returns to combat at UFC 192, live from the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas this Saturday night.