(Yeah, that’s a dragon on his t-shirt. Go ahead and say something and get your ass whipped right here in baggage claim.)
Rashad Evans is a unique case among UFC fighters. He’s undefeated, a former Ultimate Fighter winner, and now stands one victory away from claiming UFC gold. And yet he’s still far from a fan favorite, despite his recent brutal knockout of Chuck Liddell and his rise through the light heavyweight ranks.
With his title shot just a few days away, Evans talks with us about dealing with the criticism, gameplanning for Forrest Griffin, and yes, even the Greg Jackson camp nipple tweak.
CagePotato.com: Thanks for talking with us, Rashad. Now that fight night is closing in, how has your training camp been?
Training has been good. I feel really strong and I’ve had a great camp. I’ve had guys like James McSweeney, Georges St. Pierre, Nate Marquardt, Joey Villasenor and lots of others in here helping me. With guys like that you can’t help but have a good training camp.
Your fight with Forrest is being billed as the explosive athlete (you), against the hard worker (Forrest). What do you think of that characterization?
I can see how people would say that, yeah. But I think there’s aspects of both those things in each of us. I think I might be a little better natural athlete, but he can also be a real explosive fighter. And it’s not like I don’t work hard, either. I’m not going in there with any expectations of him in that regard. He’s the champ right now, and you don’t get to be the champ if you’re not a good, explosive fighter.
Before “Rampage” Jackson fought Forrest he made a lot of comments about Forrest’s lack of power, his inability to knock people out. Is that something you see as a weakness of his?
I sure don’t think about him that way. I think a lot of people think you have to be just born with power, like it’s some gift. But at this level anyone can knock someone out. It just takes the right shot to do it and Forrest is capable of it, so I’m not going in there thinking he doesn’t have power. I’m going in there and going to treat him like he’s got Chuck Liddell power, you know? I’m not trying to be the first person he knocks out. I respect his power.
What do you think is his greatest strength as a fighter?
He has the ability to dig down deep and keep going when things are working against him. A lot of people don’t have that. A lot of guys are great until things get tough, and then they turn into different fighters. Forrest never quits. He’s also a very smart fighter and he comes in with a good game plan and then sticks to it, which makes him a tough guy to beat.
Did you think he deserved to win the fight with Rampage?
I did, I thought he won the fight. When I watched it the first time I thought he won, but as I watched it again and again it seemed closer each time. I still think he won, though. He did exactly what he needed to do. He broke Rampage down and fought smart, and in my eyes he deserved to take that belt.
What do you think it says about The Ultimate Fighter series now that two winners from the first two seasons are fighting for a belt?
I think what it says is that the UFC and Dana White struck a goldmine with this show. They hit the lottery. They had no idea it would be this big and this successful, and produce so many good fighters.
I think one of the things it does for the sport is it gives the fans an opportunity to watch guys as they develop. They can see a guy coming up, watch him sharpen his skills and get better and kind of follow him and then they’re able to say, ‘I been watching this guy for years, back when he was just starting.’ There’s a kind of pride in that. It’s almost like watching your kids grow up. People like to feel like they’ve been there with you and have seen you improve and grow.
What are the biggest differences between the Rashad Evans we see now and the one who won season two of TUF?
I think more than anything it’s confidence. Coming out of the show, there were some things I liked about the old Rashad that I lost. Now I’m starting to have fun with it again, starting to enjoy myself like I used to instead of dreading it and putting too much pressure on myself. I feel like that’s something I had in the beginning, but then I lost that and I’m finally getting it back now.
You feel like you lost that after winning the show and then coming into the UFC?
Yeah, it became not about fighting and having fun, but dealing with all this different criticism. I started out enjoying myself when I fought, but after the show there were all these expectations. Being in the second season, you look at the guys from the first, like Forrest and Stephan Bonnar and Diego Sanchez and Kenny Florian and you see how good they’re doing. I was still just starting my career and just learning and suddenly I felt like I had to live up to all of that.
You mentioned the criticism of you. It seems like there’s two main criticisms. One is that you’re a showboat, and the other is that you’re a boring, “lay-and-pray” fighter. How do you respond to stuff like that, and does it bother you?
I think both of it bothered me, to be honest. But probably what hurt me more was the showboat stuff. I mean, the lay-and-pray, that’s whatever. That’s just something people say when they don’t like how you’re winning. I knew there were some holes in my game when I started and so I had to play to my strengths.
People don’t understand sometimes, it’s so hard to get a win in the UFC, you got to take it any way you can get it. You can’t afford to go out there and think, ‘I have to knock this guy out standing.’ You do anything you can to get a win, because if you don’t you might be out of a job. Look at a guy like Sokoudjou. He’s a great athlete and a really good fighter. But he loses a couple fights and he’s out of the UFC. That’s how hard it is at this level, so you do whatever you can do, and for me, especially early on, that meant using my wrestling.
Now that you’re starting to win more fights with your striking, not going to decision as much, it seems like fans still haven’t embraced you the way they have someone like Forrest. Why do you think that is?
I can never figure that out. I guess I’ll never know. It’s weird to me, but what can you do? You can’t make people like you.
Do you really notice the criticism and the fans’ attitude toward you, or is it just something other people tell you about?
You know, the weird thing is I’ve never met a fan who didn’t like me. On the blogs, they might hate me, but every fan I meet is my biggest fan, they’ve been watching me from the beginning and have always cheered for me. Maybe when I turn my back it’s, ‘That Rashad sucks, man.’ I don’t know. But I know that when people meet me in person they always seem to like me, or at least say they do. I try to be a nice guy and make time for people, whether they say they like me all the time or just when I can hear them.
If you can beat Forrest and become the champ, do you think that will turn some people around on you?
What I’ve learned is that you can never make everybody happy. You just can’t please everyone, no matter what you do, so you shouldn’t make yourself crazy trying. If I can be the champ, though, that will be enough for me. The thing about fame and popularity is, it’s all so fleeting. I try not to get caught up in other people’s perceptions of me, because that’s something I can’t control and it’s something that can always change.
Let’s talk contracts. We hear a lot of guys from TUF complain about the contracts they get when they first come into the UFC.
Yeah, I’m not under that contract anymore. I’m happy with the contract that I am under.
Have you ever had any problems negotiating with the UFC? After the Jon Fitch situation, we heard a lot about the difficulty in talking with Dana White, and it was only when Lorenzo Fertitta got involved that things were resolved.
I’ve never had a problem negotiating with Dana or Lorenzo. Whenever there’s been an issue I’ve always been able to talk it out with them and I’ve been happy with the way I’ve been treated.
Do you deal with Dana or Lorenzo or both of them when you negotiate?
Usually you meet with the both of them. You talk to them both at the same time and they kind of make decisions together. I think the Jon Fitch situation, that might have just been how that particular situation played out. It’s not been my experience with them.
Everyone knows how Dana can be in public, the language he uses, it can be very in your face but at least you always know where you stand with him. He’ll tell you exactly what he thinks. Lorenzo might be a little more of a calculating businessman, but they’ve both been easy to deal with for me.
Level with me here. When you get in the Octagon, you’re standing across from Forrest, they’re announcing your name, Bruce Buffer does his little turn and the camera pans to you, are we going to see the nipple-tweak?
You know, I’m not sure. I might have a little variation on it this time.
A variation? But it’s been so successful in its current form.
I know it has. It has been successful, and I don’t want to get away from it and get my teammates mad at me, but let’s just say I might have something slightly different for this fight.
Wow, keeping us in suspense. Is there anything else you want to add?
I just want to thank all the people who’ve supported me, my teammates, my coaching staff, their support is something I’m really appreciative of and I want to say thank you for that.