It's always fun when a fight goes from an athletic competition to something more. Rivalries are what make sports so amazing to watch. Think the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens going after it hard on a Sunday afternoon. Think Roy Williams and Coach K exchanging dueling glares in a North Carolina-Duke Showdown.
Think Rashad Evans and Jon Jones going toe-to-toe inside the UFC Octagon. Make no mistake—there is no love lost between these two former teammates. How did their relationship go so wrong? Bleacher Report is on the case.
Before Jon Jones even made his UFC debut, Rashad Evans was a star. He won the second season of The Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV and together with teammate Diego Sanchez, helped make coach Greg Jackson famous. Rashad believes without him and other original Jackson fighters, there would be no Greg Jackson mythology:
It's like — who would Greg Jackson be if it wasn't for the original fighters who really put Greg Jackson on the map? Nobody would be hearing about him. Nobody would be hearing about this gym that he has in Albuquerque. He would just be a guy who likes fighting and who coaches guys.
Evans wins the world title from fan favorite Forrest Griffin just months after Jones makes his UFC debut. Wins over Griffin and Chuck Liddell, another popular star, make Evans one of the most hated men in all of mixed martial arts.
Rashad told me at the time that it didn't bother him much:
I didn't really mind it that much, because that's what I expected," Rashad said. "If I hadn't expected it, I might have gotten my feelings hurt. But I knew they would all be rooting for Chuck. I like Chuck, too. I was clapping and dancing to his music when he came out. I was going to have fun with it. I wasn't going to be like 'Oh no! This is my death.' Being relaxed allowed me to fight the way I'm capable of fighting.
Jones became a bona fide star at UFC 94. Few expected him to beat Stephan Bonnar, a UFC mainstay, but he did so with panache. Jones brought a variety of styles into the Octagon, including pro wrestling style throws and panoply of spinning strikes.
In one iconic moment, Jones tossed Bonnar over his head with a textbook German suplex. As Bonnar struggled back to his feet, Jones met him with a spinning elbow that literally made UFC matchmaker Joe Silva's jaw drop cageside. Yes, Jones had arrived.
In August, 2009, Jones joins the team at Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA. He and Rashad bond and he makes sure to get Evans's approval before coming onto his turf. Greg Jackson tells MMA Weekly that he thinks it's a great fit:
"Jon Jones has joined our team and he's out here training. He's just a pleasure to work with. He's incredibly creative. That he's got so far with his creativity is amazing."
In May, 2010, Evans finally settles his business with Quinton "Rampage" Jackson at UFC 114. After months of trash talk, Evans talks loudest in the cage, winning a unanimous decision. The win earns him a title shot, but before he can enter the cage with "Shogun" Rua, the champion goes down with a knee injury.
Rashad decides to wait for a title shot rather than fighting in the interim:
"At this point, unless they come up with an interim title, then I'll wait," Evans told MMAJunkie.com in July 2010. "Having a chance to fight for a title is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and I consider myself to be very lucky that I got two chances."
Pay attention now, this is when things started going south.
UFC President Dana White found out Evans was injured during UFC 126. After waiting months for his shot at Rua, Rashad wouldn't be able to compete. Luckily for White, a solution emerged that night. Jones demolished fellow prospect Ryan Bader on the undercard and White made the young fighter an offer he couldn't refuse.
Just six weeks later, Jones would be filling in for Evans in a main event, title fight showdown with Rua.
"I had no clue my title shot was coming," Jones said at the postfight press conference. "Would I have asked for it? Sure, you know my goal is to be considered the best fighter in the light heavyweight division."
Jones sends shock waves through the MMA community when he tells the world he would fight Rashad Evans if asked. This is a departure, as Jackson-Winkeljohn fighters are generally adamant they won't compete against each other in the cage. In fact, Evans had just told Dave Farra that he wouldn't fight Jones.
“I respect Dana White a lot and, if that's what he absolutely wanted to happen, then I guess that's what would have to happen,” Jones said on live TV.
The next day, a shocked Evans fired right back on MMA Live.
“I am no punk. If Jon wins the (title) I got to sit down with the team and decide what to do.”
15 days later, Jones wins the title from "Shogun" Rua. The theoretical fight between Jones and Evans suddenly looked very real.
On the very day Jones wins the title, Evans announces a split with coach Greg Jackson, citing an unhappiness in Jackson's decision not to corner him against Jones. In an angry interview with Duane Finley, Evans blames his former coach for creating an untenable situation:
"I told him that the kid was talented and that the sky was the limit with him, but that was the type of guy I wanted to fight, not train with," Evans told Bloody Elbow. "After awhile, Greg was so high on this kid coming in. I met Jon Jones and he was a very nice and very sweet kid, so eventually I said ... let' s bring him in.
"You can't say you are not going to have anything to do with it when you are a big part of the reason why the situation originated," Evans said. "That's like spilling a glass of milk and then walking away and saying that you don't want to have anything to do with it. You (freaking) spilled the milk."
Evans relocated to Florida to train at Imperial Athletics, eventually becoming a key cog in a fight team known as the "Blackzilians."
Jones pulls out of a possible title fight against Evans due to an injured thumb. Evans tells the world he thinks the injury is fake and tension builds between the two men. They almost have an impromptu fight in Las Vegas and welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre has to play peacemaker.
Evans, not willing to wait for a title shot against Jones, takes on Tito Ortiz in August. Fueling speculation that he is playing mind games, Jones decides not to have surgery on his injured thumb. Days after Rashad's-fight is announced, Jones signs to fight Quinton Jackson.
Evans takes to Twitter to call Jones out:
"Question: if u r or were so confident then y fake a thumb injury? Cuz just between me & y'all he don't need surgery! ... but I ain't one 2 gossip so u didnt hear it from me! (ala Living Color) 4 u young folk! Lol ... If I'm lying, I'm dying! Ask @jonnybones when is his surgery & who was his dr! He so fake he fake surgeries!! Now that's fake!"
Jones demolishes Quinton Jackson at UFC 135, making the former champion look like a bum. There was trash talk leading up to the fight, but none of it seemed to make Jones as mad as having to look at Evans across the cage.
Immediately following his win, Jones was confronted by Evans. A similar incident happened after his title win over Rua and Jones was not happy.
“He’s ruined my special night twice now and the time will come,” a steaming Jones told Joe Rogan after the fight.
It's been more than a year in the making, but the Jones vs. Evans fight is set for UFC 145 in Atlanta. The two men, clearly sick of talking and thinking about each other, go at it hardcore at the official press conference in February.
Evans, tired of hearing Jones is unbeatable and MMA's next big thing, drives home the point that no one is superhuman:
“See, that’s one thing that Jon doesn’t understand...There’s been so many people like him that’s always been ‘the one.’ That’s the secret, there is no ‘one.’ Anybody can lose, any given day, and he’s going to find that out. I’ve got big advantages knowing what he’s going to do, just knowing the range, where I need to fight him at. Just training with him and knowing what he’s good at, where he likes to fight. I already know what I need to do. I’m not going to get in there and get frozen watching all the beautiful stuff he throws. I’m going to get in there and just mix it up…This fight won’t go five rounds.”
Greg Jackson was adamant—he wouldn't corner Jones against his former student Evans. Then one day in February, he simply changed his mind. Bleacher Report talked to Jackson's business partner Mike Winkeljohn for some insight into Greg's change of heart:
I was always going to corner Jon, I’ve been working with him from almost day one. And Rashad had left camp. And Rashad’s actually cool with that. We’ve spoken many times and he’s got no problem. He understands everyone’s out to make a living and do their thing. We’ve got a good rapport. But he upset me in that he kept throwing Greg under the bus.
Enough is enough. You have your disagreements, I understand that, but there’s more important things out there. And it’s time for Greg to work in Jon’s corner. Jon’s here everyday, helping everybody else out. I mean John’s that guy. He goes out of his way to help everybody here on the team. So I told Greg, work his corner.
Next for the two bitter enemies? Nothing much—just the biggest light heavyweight grudge match since Chuck Liddell fought Tito Ortiz. On April 21, 2012, the two men will settle the score in the Octagon.