Every fighter competing in the UFC possesses a certain level of talent. Nevertheless, the truly great ones have something that sets them apart. In addition to a solid arsenal of skills, the best fighters bring unique intangibles which allow them to exploit even the most minimal of opportunities and push through situations where others crumble.
There is no denying that Rashad Evans is in the elite class of mixed martial artists.
That being said, over the past two years, the former light heavyweight champion has had difficulty keeping in touch with those things that put him on top of the sport.
Turbulence in both his personal and professional life tipped the balance to put Evans on a downturn. These circumstances amplified when he came up short in a highly anticipated grudge match with former training partner and current champion Jon Jones at UFC 145, then put on a listless performance in his loss to Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 156 back in February.
The fighter who looked gun-shy against "Lil Nog" in Las Vegas was a far stretch from the confidence Evans has displayed throughout his time in MMA.
After winning the second installment of The Ultimate Fighter, the former Michigan State wrestling standout rose to become one of the most dominant fighters in the 205-pound division. In the process of his ascension, Evans expanded his wrestling-heavy style to include a striking game based off speed and brutal knockout power.
When coupled with his bravado and confidence, Evans became a superstar under the UFC banner.
It was on the strength of those talents that he became a champion. That is precisely what he needed to find heading into his main event showdown with Dan Henderson at UFC 161.
For Evans, the rediscovery of what made him one of the world's best fighters was a matter of mindset. He's looking forward to bringing back "Suga" back in Winnipeg.
"The most important thing for me right now is just getting to enjoy competing again and competing from the standpoint where it's not so much about my arrival at a destination," Evans told Bleacher Report. "Not thinking that I have to get a title shot after this or worrying about my next fight, but really just enjoying each and every single part of this journey that I'm on.
"Before you know it, I'm going to be done with this, and I don't want to have spent most of my time stressing or worrying about the final destination when there are so many great things I've been blessed to see along the path. I'm blessed enough to have the longevity that I have in a sport like mixed martial arts. Especially in the UFC.
"Being one of the stars in the UFC for as long as I've been isn't an easy task, but it's definitely a blessing. I'm going to take some time to smell the flowers along the way and enjoy where I'm at and fight my ass off."
Throughout his career, Evans has defeated a collection of the best light heavyweight fighters the world has to offer. The 33-year-old Team Blackzilians fighter has steamrolled former champions, snuffed out legends and turned back rising prospects looking to take his spot in the divisional pecking order.
With continued success, expectations steadily rose for Evans inside the cage. And while living up to that measure and performing consistently at the highest level brings added pressure, Evans wouldn't have things any other way.
"It's something I want people to know," Evans said. "For me, at first it was a burden, but I just realized how blessed I am and to have set the standard I've set for myself. It allows me to see how far I've come in my career.
"Really, you can't smell the roses until you've retired, but every once in awhile you get a peek of how far you've come, how much people appreciate you and how much your body of work has meant. For people to have a standard of expectation for me to perform at the highest levels at all times is a bit overwhelming at times, but for the most part I feel like I'm blessed."
Going into his fight with Henderson at UFC 161, Evans finds himself in the strangest of positions. While he's been a perennial contender for the past five years, the reality of his current situation is a two-fight losing skid and the potential to be removed from the title picture for the foreseeable future.
Evans is aware of the circumstances, and they are nothing more than distractions from the task at hand. He knows the dangers Henderson presents and isn't looking past the former Olympian, because it's a mistake he's made in the past. In order to Evans to keep his focused locked on "Hendo," he's had to tune out the static and keep his mind on the immediate goal.
"It does get difficult because before you know it, everybody is talking about everything else except for what is really going on in front of you," Evans said. "And if you're not really careful and watch the garden that is your mind, you can allow those weeds to take root. Before you know it, you are lost in what you should actually be thinking about and lose focus on what you should be focused on.
"You really have to be able to let people talk about what they are going to talk about—but at the same time—not let it affect you as an athlete."
On Saturday night, Evans will once again put everything on the line when he squares off with Henderson.
It will be a meeting of two men who are at a crucial crossroads in their respective careers, with the winner staying on the title radar and the loser having those dreams extinguished. While the pressure surrounding Evans is at an all-time high, he's worked hard to get back to what made mixing it up inside the cage worthwhile, and he's determined to put that on display.
"Fans are going to see Rashad Evans out there having fun," Evans said. "It's going to feel really good, I've been working and trying to cultivate that and trying to get back to the best of me."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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