LAS VEGAS — Rashad Evans, former light heavyweight champion of the world, sits on a plastic chair on the stage of the Hollywood Theatre at the MGM Grand.
He is covered in sweat. The floor around him is covered in sweat. Tyrone Spong, his training partner for the afternoon (and the scariest man on this planet or any other, if you ask me), is covered in sweat. A training partner is attempting to help by mopping it up as it drips from Evans to the floor. It's no use.
Evans is staring at the ground, pondering a question he's just been asked. This is something you notice about Evans these days; the brash and flamboyant fighter who has polarized audiences since his days on The Ultimate Fighter is probably still in there, somewhere.
For the most part, though, Evans is quiet. Reflective. He is taking the time to answer his own questions, important questions about life and career and getting old and how people think he may not have what it takes to do this fighting thing anymore. The kind of questions few of us feel comfortable asking, made even more difficult by the fame and the glory and the money.
It is in the midst of one of these quiet moments, when Evans is staring at the blue grappling mat to his left, that Chael Sonnen materializes behind him. He comes out of nowhere. Evans does not notice his frequent coworker and UFC 167 opponent until Sonnen gently taps him on the shoulder.
"You're a whole lot quicker today than I remember," Sonnen says, the grin never leaving his face. "I'm going to have to go back to my room and reassess."
Evans smiles back, and Sonnen departs.
And then the smile on Evans' face is gone, like it never existed at all.
Evans and Sonnen are used heavily by Fox for UFC television broadcasts. They travel the road together, often training together. They have few other options. Each has relied on the other, as iron sharpens iron, to keep their athletic engines humming despite all the distractions a regular sports television job brings.
They'd already agreed that they weren't going to fight each other. There was no sense in risking a friendship and on-air chemistry for one night's pay.
And then, one night while the pair was doing a live television broadcast from Indianapolis, Dana White texted Sonnen. He wanted to announce Chael's next opponent on Fox Sports 1 that night. This was a surprise to Sonnen, who never turns down an opponent and rolls with the punches.
Whatever the UFC wants, the UFC gets. White wants to announce his next opponent without asking him first? That's OK. White announces that Sonnen is coaching the next season of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil without so much as running the idea by him? It's fine. He is a team player.
Sonnen told White that he was fine with his boss announcing his next fight, so long as the opponent was a light heavyweight and was not Evans.
"It is Rashad," White texted back. Sonnen saw the message during a commercial break. He tapped Evans on the arm, then held up the phone so Rashad could see. A few minutes later, Sonnen had to execute a "toss" to Evans, which required turning to him and setting up a question for Evans to answer.
"I could feel him sizing me up," Sonnen says. "And I felt myself doing the same thing to him."
Sonnen's instincts were correct; Evans was indeed licking his chops.
"Once I found out he was on the menu, he already started looking like something good to eat," Evans says.
Things change quickly when the prospect of punching a friend in the face surfaces.
It is 30 minutes before Evans will walk into the Hollywood Theatre. Sonnen sits on the same plastic chair that Evans will occupy. He says that he doesn't know if he can beat Evans, and you genuinely believe him when he says this because Sonnen is so often not very genuine at all when faced with promoting a fight.
Sonnen says he saw Evans the night before, and that Evans looks big and strong. He says he doesn't know if he'll be able to take Evans down and he certainly isn't going to run across the cage and try to plow through Rashad the way he has with every other opponent. What was effective on that heartbreaking night so many months ago when Sonnen nearly wrested the middleweight title from Anderson Silva likely won't work on Saturday night.
Sonnen says he has moved past Plan A and is now looking for Plan B and C. He is humble and quiet. It feels as though he has no idea how to beat Evans, and has come to terms with the idea of losing.
When this is relayed to Evans, he shakes his head and offers a slight smile.
"I don't believe it. I don't believe it," Evans says. "Chael is just running game. He's trying to disarm me. Do you guys see what's happening? Do you see what he's trying to do to me? I'm supposed to go in there uber-confident, and meanwhile he's got something else on his mind.
"Let's be honest with each other. Chael Sonnen has one way of fighting, and that's coming straight at you. It doesn't matter who you are or what your game plan is; he has one thing he's looking to do, and that's to impose his will. He does it with everybody he fights, and I expect him to do it on Saturday. And if he doesn't come straight at me, I'm going to go straight at him."
Evans and Sonnen, competitors and training partners and friends, already know when they'll next work together. They'll reconvene here in Las Vegas to broadcast a live weigh-in show for The Ultimate Fighter finale in two weeks. Everything will be as it usually is, which is to say they will be friends again.
But for now, for the next few days, they are not friends. They are not enemies. But each man has something they're trying to accomplish, and the other guy is standing directly in their path. Sonnen wants to continue the momentum he established with his surprising submission win over Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. Evans wants to stave off his own self-doubts about his place in the fight game and whether or not he still has the ability to be one of the best light heavyweights in the world.
They remain friendly with each other. There is no outward awkwardness. They even conduct television interviews sitting side by side, a rarity for fighters, and Evans can hardly contain his laughter when Sonnen cuts one of his "Superstar" Billy Graham promos on SportsCenter. Each man tries to project a tough attitude concerning the other, but it's a difficult task because they like each other.
But the fire is still there, even if you can't see it, and you can see that this is a very important thing for both men. As the legendary former UCLA Bruins football coach Red Saunders said: Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing.
Evans says that he simply cannot lose to Sonnen because Chael will never let him live it down. Sonnen disagrees with that assessment.
"I'm a pretty good winner. I understand that it's just a competition," he says. "Either way, I'll shake his hand when we're done and I'll walk away."
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