Former champion fights his way back to title bout
After 14 months of being criticized for his decision-making and nearly missing out on the championship opportunity he craves, poetic justice was served Saturday night as Rashad Evans punched his ticket to a future title fight in emphatic fashion.
Numerous people including UFC President Dana White questioned Evans’ choice to wait and fight then-champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua following his victory over Quinton Jackson last May. Knowing Rua would be sidelined for an extended period due to knee surgery, many wondered if Evans wouldn’t be better served stepping back into the cage in the interim.
The questions turned into criticisms when a knee injury of his own forced Evans from the long-awaited title bout. As if that weren’t bad enough, the possibility of missing out on a championship opportunity became a reality again when current champ Jon Jones withdrew from the main event originally planned for this card due to a thumb injury, leaving Evans in a must-win situation this weekend.
And win he did.
With one of the most dominant performances of his career, Evans not only cemented his place opposite the winner of September’s light heavyweight title fight between Jones and Jackson, but he earned a measure of validation as well. His impressive performance against Ortiz silenced the critics who wondered whether he was still deserving of a title shot after all this time on the sidelines, and had White singing his praises at the post-fight press conference.
While it’s easy to sit on the outside and second-guess the choices fighters like Evans make about their careers, opportunities to fight for the world title don’t come around every day. Taking a fight felt like he was risking too much to Evans, a decision that is his to make. Though we applaud fighters like Anthony Pettis for accepting a difficult fight instead of waiting his turn, his result against Clay Guida shows the potential hazards that Evans opted to avoid.
Following the draw between Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard at UFC 125, Pettis was given the option of waiting until the two lightweights completed their trilogy or stepping into the cage and risking the title shot he earned at WEC 53. The 24-year-old Milwaukee native chose the latter, selecting Guida as his opponent for a bout that would eventually headline The Ultimate Fighter 13 Finale.
The vastly superior wrestler controlled Pettis throughout the fight, taking a unanimous decision win and dashing the former WEC champion’s UFC title dreams for the time being. With the tremendous amount of depth that exists in the 155 pound ranks, Pettis is no shuffled to the bottom of the stacked deck, forced to work his way back into contention, a place it has taken Jim Miller three years and seven consecutive victories to reach.
A loss in the interim for Evans would have had the same impact. With fighters like Rua, Jackson and Lyoto Machida all vying for another opportunity as well, a defeat would have dropped Evans behind all three in the chase for the championship. A year’s worth of work would have been lost in one evening, and placed two years and a few quality victories between him and a chance to reclaim the belt he once held.
Evans made the decision he felt was best for his career — a move comparable to one Ortiz was applauded for prior to changing his mind and accepting this fight. Though the circumstances were different, the overall choice remains the same. Ortiz originally balked at the idea of fighting the #1 contender on short notice to preserve his momentum following his surprise win over Ryan Bader at UFC 132, and few questioned him for the decision. Yet when Evans opts against risking more than Ortiz had to put on the line on Saturday night, he’s put under the microscope and second guessed.
Reclaiming the light heavyweight title is the only thing that matters to Evans. It has been his only goal since he lost the belt to Machida two years ago. Every decision he makes is predicated on getting a chance to wear that belt again. In the end, he still had to bridge the gap between his fight with Jackson and a championship bout with another victory anyway, just as many had hoped.
Now that he’s earn his coveted title shot in dominant fashion, here’s hoping Evans is showered with as much praise as he received criticism over the last 14 months.