Before last night's dismantling of a game Tito Ortiz, it had been fourteen months since we last saw Rashad Evans in the UFC Octagon. Too long. Far too long. Evans is in his absolute prime, one of the UFC's very best and most interesting fighters. It is a shame for him to have missed all those months when he was at his physical and mental peak as an athlete. A fighter doesn't get a second chance to capitalize on that brief window when he is at his best.
The reasons for Evans's absence are understandable. Like most of the sport's best fighters, he wants to win UFC gold - and earned a shot at the title by beating Quinton "Rampage" Jackson at UFC 114. Unfortunately, then champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua's knee wasn't cooperating. His surgery postponed a potential Evans title shot. Rashad was willing to wait, deciding to shun requests from the UFC brass to return to action, instead waiting for Rua to get healthy.
It was a plan that made sense in theory (after all, the title is like an ATM and makes great fighters legends) but failed miserably in execution. When Rua was finally ready to fight, Evans went down with a minor injury. His training partner Jon Jones took his title shot, took the title, and Evans left Greg Jackson's fight team with bitter words and hard feelings. The UFC, perhaps sending a message, gave "Rampage" Jackson, the man Evans had beaten to earn a title shot, the first chance to dispatch Jones.
In the end, the extra time to prepare for a top fighter will be the best thing to happen to Evans. He looked good against Ortiz, but his game showed a little rust from being on the shelf for more than a year. He got hit several times coming in and struggled for a round with a fighter most consider on the dying days of a great career. Against a hard puncher like Jackson or a ground and pound artist like Jones, those mistakes could have been fatal.
For his part, Evans isn't sure the time off wasn't a blessing in disguise. The chaos gave him plenty of time to adjust to training in a new environment, under the tutelage of former wrestling standout Mike Van Arsdale rather than the ubiquitous Jackson.
"It helped out a lot, mentally as well as physically," he told the assembled media after the fight. After recovering from his knee injury, Evans immediately went through a fight camp. Then another after he finally had a date to fight. "...I did two camps back to back. That's a lot longer than I ever did before...I never lived the life of a fighter. I only did an eight week camp and that was about it. This time I was in camp for like four months straight. It paid dividends."
Against Ortiz, frankly a little overmatched, Evans was able to reset, eventually landing a huge takedown and a bigger knee to the solar plexus. Evans was patient, waiting for Ortiz to make a mistake, not willing to come crashing in against the veteran.
"I took my time with it. That was the one thing I wanted to do. I know I've been out of there for awhile. I knew Tito, I could kind of feel his energy and I knew he was going to try to come at me fast," Evans said. "I wanted to make sure I didn't rush into anything. I took time to set up my standup. So things went right."
After the bout, UFC President Dana White confirmed Evans will fight the winner of Jackson and Jones, scheduled for UFC 135 in September.
"I'm a big believer in ring rust," White said. "Rashad kind of f*cked my theory up a little bit tonight. He didn't look rusty at all. He looked great."