I once walked with Rashad Evans through the crowd at a UFC event, looking for a quiet spot to do an interview. That's a daunting task inside an arena with a sea of raucous fans setting what often seems like indoor decibel level records after their fifth beer, always accompanied by a soundtrack best described as "songs popular in the clubs two months ago/1990's frat boy rock."
That meant we had some searching to do to find a quiet spot. For Rashad, that meant a little walk behind a UFC PR staffer—for me, it was a chance to experience second hand what celebrity feels like.
When you roll with Rashad Evans, the UFC crowd feels like 10,000 Two Faces. You know, the horribly disfigured Batman villain, half suave Harvey Dent, half scarred monster? The crowd was split just as evenly for Evans. For every autograph and picture request, there was pure, unfiltered vitriol.
"Rashad, you suck."
"Rashad, you're a piece of sh*t."
"Rashad, I love you."
The noise is overwhelming. The catcalls surround you, the source of each cry hard to determine. Is the person approaching you one of the angry mob? Or an adoring fan? Does it matter?
Evans simply smiled and went about his business. He's inured to it at this point, but I was left a little shaken at the raw emotion that he considered just another part of the job.
Who are these people who feel so strongly about a stranger they've only seen on television. How can they care so much? Is it his Tom Ford suits? His penchant for dancing in the cage? His articulate and penetrating insights into the sport on UFC Tonight and other television programming?
Admiration and jealousy, two sides of the same coin. Whichever way it lands, for you personally, when it comes to Rashad Evans there are few fence-sitters. People care.
Too much? Is there such a thing? To the UFC, the answer is clearly no. Evans, too, makes his living feeding the crowd's emotions.
Rashad Evans is a polarizing figure. Maybe he's designed to be. Maybe it comes naturally. Either way, the real question isn't one of morality, of good or bad. For business, where the bottom line is king, it's good.
The real questions?
- How can the UFC bottle it and distribute it to the rest of their motley crew of fighters?
- How can they build another star from a fighter who, stripped to his core, is a cautious point fighter who puts winning ahead of entertaining, at least inside the cage?
- And why are they willing to waste this precious asset in the middle of his prime?
At 33 years of age, Evans is as good a fighter as he's likely ever going to be. Considering he's lost just twice, both world title matches, in his eight-year career, that's really saying something. Evans has hit that sweet spot, where athleticism and wisdom, physicality and knowledge, craft and ability, combine to create a fighter of overwhelming ability.
It's a sweet spot that doesn't last forever. Too soon, his physical tools will diminish. That's the aging process and it's a brutal reality for all fighters. While his skill set will continue to grow, his instincts get better and better, eventually his body will betray him.
That's a fact.
And it's why I hate the fight the UFC has scheduled for Evans early next year at UFC 157. Now is the time to shoot for the moon. It's time to see Rashad against the best the UFC has to offer.
- A middleweight title challenge against Anderson Silva, or at the very least a bout that puts that goal at arm's length.
- A bout with Chael Sonnen.
- A rematch with the great Lyoto Machida with Jon Jones and another shot at light heavyweight gold looming just out of reach.
The possibilities are there for Evans to make the most of his rapidly diminishing physical prime. Athletically and at the box office, there are intriguing matches to be made.
But a bout with journeyman Antonio Rogerio Nogueira?
That's a huge fail on every level.
Evans is a star. UFC President Dana White said as much himself at the UFC 152 press conference, calling the light heavyweight one of his five best drawing cards. His last nine bouts have all been headliners, two of them passing the 1,000,000 mark in pay per view buys, giving weight to White's words.
At this point, as a former champion at the height of his powers, Evans belongs in bouts with other stars only. And Rogerio Nogueira does not fit in that category. Nogueira is simply a name, and not even a self-created one.
He's riding the legend of his brother Rodrigo, a legend that has propelled him to great opportunity in both America and Japan. If his last name was Silva or Cane, he'd be featured on Fuel TV not in inexplicable PPV main events that seem doomed to fail.
Rogerio has never headlined a UFC pay per view. He's been in the co-main event just a single time at UFC 119, one of the worst cards in company history. He has no track record of success, and at 36, isn't the kind of young gun you could make the most out of upsetting Evans.
Athletically, it's a bout that is just as questionable. Despite his five-round loss to Jones at UFC 145, Evans remains one of the best light heavyweights in the world. There's no compelling reason to assume he's not still the second-best fighter in the class. Nogueira, on the other hand, lost consecutive fights before getting back on track against the animated corpse of the fighter we used to call Tito Ortiz.
This isn't the time to make a place holder match for Evans, a time-killer while you try to figure out what to do with him next. It's time to think big, but as seems to happen all to often these days, the UFC is simply in survival mode.
The best match, the fight that makes the most sense, the build towards amazing and career-defining bouts—these don't even appear to be considerations.
The matchmaking, because of fighter injuries and a slew of strange decisions, is completely broken. Fights are being made to fill slots, not to build stars and storylines. And while that may be a necessity for a promotion that seems on the verge of chaos, it's also the road towards failure.