Jones vs. Evans brings teammate debate to the forefront once again
To fight or not to fight.
For teammates in mixed martial arts, that is the ultimate question.
To say the encounter in the cage was awkward would be a slap in the face to typical awkwardness; both fighters appeared as if they had so much they wanted to say, yet neither managed much of anything, at least not in the cage.
Evans has spoken about the tumultuous situation at length since exiting the Octagon on Saturday, explaining his side in what has become the biggest story in the sport right now. He feels betrayed, by Jones and by Greg Jackson, the leader of the Albuquerque gym where Evans has spent most of his time since coming into the UFC.
Despite speaking about his kinship with Jones since the young New Yorker arrived in New Mexico, the truth has come out since Jones claimed the 205-pound belt Evans was supposed to be challenging “Shogun” Rua for prior to injuring his knee in training…and it is getting messier with every passing day.
Evans is essentially reprising the role first played at the Jackson gym by Diego Sanchez. Just as Sanchez was disapproving of the arrival of Georges St. Pierre some years ago, Evans wanted to remain the 205-pound alpha male in Albuquerque, and told Jackson as much when he approached him about Jones joining the team.
Now Evans is following in Sanchez’s steps once again, packing his gear and leaving New Mexico, hurt and hungry for the chance to strike back at his former teammate and coach both inside and outside of the cage.
The melodrama makes for great news leading up to the eventual meeting and will no doubt add sales to the pay-per-view totals, as well as probably spawning another installment of UFC Primetime, but it also shines a light on the various sides of the debate about teammates stepping into the cage against each other.
Evans’s frustration is wholly understandable. Not only did his teammate jump at the opportunity to replace him in a title fight, he also changed his tune on fighting him almost immediately after; Jones’s stance on fighting Evans went from “never ever” to “if that’s what the UFC wants” overnight.
To Evans, it’s a situation that didn’t have to happen in the first place, as Jackson could have listened to his long-time student and turned down Jones’s request to work with him. Instead, he brought Jones into the fold, and it resulted in the awkward situation all three men now find themselves in.
I honestly feel bad for Evans right now; he’s never really gotten over with the fans to begin with and now he’s going head-to-head with the UFC’s newest superstar. Even though he’s got very legitimate grievances, he’s fighting a losing public relations battle. On top of that, the oddsmakers think he’ll be fighting a losing battle the night he steps in with the new champion as well. Double ouch.
As legitimate as his complaints and frustrations may be, Jones’s actions in this series of events are understandable as well.
How many times have we heard Dan Marino talk about how he thought he would make it back to the Superbowl every season after getting there in his second year, only to come up short of the big game for the rest of his career? Being offered the chance to fill in for his fallen friend was Jones’s chance to play in the Superbowl, and it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
Does it suck that his shot came at the expense of his teammate? Absolutely. But that shouldn’t prevent Jones from trying to achieve one of his dreams. Anyone out there who would decline the opportunity is a better person than I am, and far less competitive and driven by success. Jones wants to be the best, and if that means stepping into a position vacated by a friend, so be it. I certainly can’t begrudge him for it.
More importantly, his quest to establish his legacy started in earnest on Saturday night with the dismantling of Rua. As the new champion, Jones has to take on all comers if he wants to go down in the history books. Tito Ortiz will forever be dogged for avoiding Chuck Liddell for as long as possible when he was champion, and that is a fate Jones has no interest in repeating.
For all the talk about this topic in the past, this is really the first time we’ve seen an animus situation arise.
Fighters in similar situations have faced each other in the past without conflict. Tyson Griffin and Evan Dunham fought last summer, while Mark Hominick and George Roop squared off in January. The relationship between Evans and Jones was always reported to be stronger and closer than those two pairs of bonds, but it turns out that was never really the case.
The choice to accept your friend as your foe is one that any fighter training with a large team should be prepared to face at some point in their career. It’s one that obviously has many levels to be considered, and the arguments for and against competing against a friend are equally valid.
In the end, it all comes down to how badly you want to be the best.
Assuming everyone who competes wants to be champion and viewed as the best in the division, if not the entire sport, it’s a matter of what you would do to achieve that standing.
For some, like Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck, the AKA welterweight teammates, facing one another is out of the question; they’ve repeatedly that they are not willing to fight, regardless of what is at stake.
Interestingly, that view is not shared by everyone in their gym, as lightweights Josh Thomson and Justin Wilcox have discussed the possibility of being asked to square off under the Strikeforce banner. If that day comes, Wilcox and Thomson are willing to meet, since they do so in the gym every day and stepping into the cage would put dollars in their bank accounts.
Though I understand the reluctance shown by Fitch, Koscheck and countless others to compete against their teammates, it’s not an outlook I would share as a fighter, and one that I think has to be eschewed if an athlete is truly focused on becoming a champion and achieving greatness.
Should Fitch one day wear the welterweight strap, his reign as champion would always be surrounded by questions about fighting Koscheck. What would his decision to avoid fighting Koscheck do to his standing
Jones wants to leave no question unanswered and no doubts about his legacy. Fighting Evans may not have been at the top of his list of things to do at the start of the year, but now that he’s the champion, Evans is the first of many challengers who want to take his belt, and he’s ready and willing to face them all, starting with his former teammate.
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