Rashad Evans has been around long enough to be considered an MMA elder statement. Long enough that he's gone from hated to loved to practically pitied, what with his recent in-cage troubles and out-of-cage turmoil. It's an arc that parallels his rise from prospect to champion to aging veteran, yet there is a chance—however slight—that he can add another twist to his winding story.
After years of resisting calls to move down to middleweight, his UFC 209 matchup Saturday with Dan Kelly marks his surrender to what always seemed like an eventuality.
Now at 185 pounds, and against an opponent who wouldn't have touched Evans in his prime, it's all or nothing.
This isn't a must-win fight in any career legacy kind of way. Evans was a champion in the UFC's glamour division (light heavyweight) and an Ultimate Fighter champion back when such a thing mattered, and he has career wins over all-timers like Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Dan Henderson and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. His position as a UFC great is locked in.
Recent days, however, haven't been nearly as kind. And the future? Oof, it's cloudy at best, which explains the stakes of a fight with an opponent who has barely made it on the radar of most fight fans.
"It definitely feels like a second career," Evans told Fox Sports' Damon Martin in a recent interview. "Because it feels like I'm starting all over. Almost every aspect of it. From training situations to just getting cleared to a new weight class, everything feels brand new. I feel like a new kid on the block. It's refreshing. I'm excited, I'm nervous; I have all those rookie feelings but I know I can do it because I've done it before."
That he has. Still, a second climb will come not just against odds, but his own personal history.
Since beating Phil Davis—the current Bellator light heavyweight champion, by the way—in January 2012, Evans has sputtered to a 2-4 mark, with scattershot performances that have been alternately brilliant (first-round bulldozing of Chael Sonnen) and uninspired (decision loss to Antonio Rogerio Nogueira).
During that time, he's also had a pair of knee surgeries, left his longtime gym (the Blackzilians) and, most recently, was rejected for fight licenses by two separate commissions due to MRI abnormalities.
In sports, expiration dates only sometimes arrive conspicuously labeled. In MMA, it is often tagged by the deterioration of the chin or an inability to pull the trigger. Those signs often alert us before the athlete himself will accept the reality.
In Evans, the signs are difficult to overlook. Now 37 years old and seven years removed from his UFC title reign, he's looming dangerously close to the final chapter. If he can't beat Kelly, well then, the end is nigh.
That possibility does not exist in Evans' mind, of course. Anyone who has worn that gold shares an impossibly optimistic outlook that everything can turn around any second.
He summited the peak at a time when the light heavyweight division was at its deepest. This climb would be similarly difficult. The middleweight class is packed with both hungry veterans and rising stars all chasing the belt.
And in some ways, Evans can take his motivation from the man at the top of the heap, Michael Bisping, whom he defeated nearly a decade ago.
For a time, Bisping was going to be the best to never get a title shot. But then circumstances changed, and he became the right guy at the right time, and he left-hooked Luke Rockhold into a shocking unconsciousness to become the champion. It was a late-career rise that no one saw coming.
Evans would need to pull that kind of stunner to make it to the top. He would have to leapfrog Kelvin Gastelum and Gegard Mousasi and Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and Yoel Romero, just to name a few.
That's more than a tall order; it's a nearly impossible one.
Every unthinkable success begins with a baby step, however, and in Kelly, he's facing a manageable first rung up the ladder. The Australian is 12-1 and riding a three-fight win streak, but he's 39 years old and has never faced anyone with a pedigree in Evans' sphere. Kelly's striking is awkward and labored, and what he lacks in technique, he attempts to make up in volume and pace.
For Evans, there is both opportunity and danger in that. A career-long counterstriker, he averages more strikes absorbed per minute (2.26) than landed (2.12) per FightMetric—a rarity for a championship-caliber fighter. In that style, he is often content to bide his time and operate in the openings rather than aggressively create offensive opportunities.
This could be a feast-or-famine approach against Kelly, who is eminently hittable (opponents land 3.99 strikes per minute against him, per FightMetric) and often within range.
In the standup department, either Evans' power overcomes Kelly's volume, or he falls behind and doesn't catch up. The clinch won't be so easy. Kelly is a four-time Australian Olympic judoka and has unsurprisingly shown strength in the position. He also has five career submissions to his name on the mat.
All that aside, it's a fight Evans should win, and he knows it.
It was just over a decade ago when he first flashed his dynamic, championship-winning potential for the first time, knocking out Sean Salmon with a shattering head kick, and eight years since he signaled the coming end of Chuck Liddell's career.
All this time later, time is coming for him, too.
Changing divisions is rarely the lifeline it's made out to be. For Evans, it won't define his career, but it will extend it, and for a fighter looking for opportunity, it's a bridge to...somewhere. For Evans, it is the start of something new and exciting. Let's hope that in retrospect, it still looks that way.