In an era where it is common knowledge that grudge matches serve as pay-per-view promotion, UFC fans have become accustomed to manufactured grudges.
It is no longer a surprise to hear a fighter tell Joe Rogan, post-fight, that he has always respected the opponent he spent the last two months insulting at every public opportunity. Some fighters go so far as to admit all their trash-talking was designed to create hype and generate revenue.
So on the rare occasion we come across a genuine grudge, and not Zuffa-manufactured, like the one between Jon Jones and Rashad Evans, it is easy to tell the difference.
There is something awkward in the tension between Jones and Evans, something that can't be faked. It comes across the screen every time they are within spitting distance of each other.
The details of their feud are foggy, and they vary depending on whose version of events you're listening to.
One thing is for sure: the UFC is cashing in.
Jones will defend his title against Evans at UFC 145 on April 21 in perhaps the most anticipated Light Heavyweight bout since Chuck Liddell fought Tito Ortiz.
Like all great feuds, it began in friendship. Just how close their friendship was differs in each of their memories, but as long-time training partners under Greg Jackson, they were at the very least familiar with each other. And at most, as Evans tells it, they were like brothers. Jones was the inexperienced kid that everyone was calling the future of the Light Heavyweight division, and to whatever degree you choose to believe, Evans, who at one time was the UFC Light Heavyweight champion himself, took the kid under his wing.
Their parting of the ways came shortly before Jones won the UFC Light Heavyweight title last year, ironically replacing Evans in the bout after Evans went down with an injury. Evans claims that, while under the impression that he and Jones would never fight each other, he was surprised to see a pre-recorded interview with Jones on Versus in which Jones said he would indeed be willing to fight Evans. Jones attempted to clear things up much later, saying he meant he would fight Evans if UFC President Dana White insisted on it, but by then Evans wasn't buying it.
Ultimately, Evans left Jackson's MMA, and not on good terms. Since then, he and Jones have publicly traded barbs at every opportunity, have had a heated altercation at a Las Vegas nightclub (the details of which are, again, foggy), and have had a title fight made and scrapped at UFC 133 after Jones dropped out with a hand injury. And all the while, stories have run abound about just who, in fact, did get the better of their old training sessions at Jackson's MMA.
It is obvious that, at one time, Jones and Evans did have great affection for each other. Now there is very little between them other than bitterness and resentment. That, of course, is a recipe for great television. But what separates this feud from all but the best in MMA history, is that it revolves around a fight that promises to be vitally important to the history of the UFC's Light Heavyweight division, not to mention the legacy of the winner.
When Jones (15-1) defends his UFC Light Heavyweight title against Evans (17-1-1), it will not be the storybook "teacher vs. pupil" scenario. Jones is eight years younger than Evans, but when the two finally square off, it is Jones, 24, who will be the firmly established champion, while Evans, 32, will play the role of the hungry challenger.
Jones has an aura that might best be compared to Mike Tyson's in the late 1980s. In three short years with the UFC, Jones has blossomed from a "can't-miss prospect" into a fighter that "appears invincible." Where Tyson's attack was explosive and unrelenting from the opening bell, Jones has a more cerebral approach, tending to wait for the best opportunities to unleash his ferocity, but the results are no less spectacular. Or violent.
What separates Jones from much-hyped fighters of the past are his results against top tier competition. Logic dictates that a dominant fighter will grow less dominant as the quality of his opponents increases, but Jones defies that logic. He appears to discard top tier opponents with the same ease (and arguably greater ease) than lesser ones. It is hard to believe that Stephan Bonnar survived three rounds with Jones in 2009, considering the fates of Ryan Bader, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, and Lyoto Machida in 2011 (each finished inside three rounds).
In contrast to Jones's meteoric rise, Evans has a habit of flying under the radar. He seems to be the perennial number one contender, and yet his fight against Jones will be his first title shot since losing the belt to Machida in May of 2009. Injuries (to himself and others) have led to long periods of inactivity for Evans, costing him at least two title shots. He has fought just five times in the last three years (Jones has fought nine times in that span).
In the cage, like Jones, Evans is a cerebral fighter. Unlike Jones, he brings a workman-like approach to his fights. Evans is a notorious slow starter (a slow start vs. Jones could be fatal), but once he finds his groove, he tends to methodically dismantle his opponents. While he owns devastating knockouts over Liddell and Forrest Griffin, a typical Evans fight looks a lot more like his most recent bout with Phil Davis, where, after a slow start, he began to exploit Davis's weaknesses and wound up scoring a one-sided unanimous decision victory.
The most significant of their common opponents is Machida. In 2009, after one of his trademark slow starts, Evans was knocked unconscious by Machida in the second round of their title fight at UFC 98. It remains Evans' only loss to date (Jones's only loss, by the way, happened via disqualification in a fight where he brutalized Matt Hamill while breaking an obscure twelve-to-six elbow rule). Nearly three years later, at UFC 140, Machida was also the first fighter to give Jones significant problems, only to be choked unconscious by Jones with a standing guillotine and discarded like a sweaty towel onto the octagon floor.
But if there is one fighter in the UFC that does not see Jones as super-human, it's Evans. In his time training with Jones at Jackson's MMA, Evans has no doubt seen what we all know deep down - that Jones does have flaws, that he is human, just like every other fighter.
Their pasts aside, Evans's combination of striking, wrestling, and octagon-intelligence would arguably be enough to present Jones with his toughest challenge to date. Evans has a history of making very good fighters look mediocre. His familiarity with the champion is an intriguing twist. Evans, after all, claims to have regularly gotten the better of Jones in training. Of course, what matters is who will get the better of whom in the fight, and unlike their training sessions, we will all get to see that.
Jones's greatness is no longer a matter for debate. His wins in 2011 alone are enough to qualify him as a great fighter. But greatness is measured in degrees, and Jones aspires to establish himself as the greatest of the great. Adding Evans to his list of victims will go a long way toward achieving that goal.
Likewise, should Evans defeat Jones, he will become a two-time champion with a win over a fighter previously thought by many to be unbeatable. It will be hard to underrate him after that. Evans is looking to put a stamp on his own legacy.
When the fight is over, I fully expect the winner to be gracious, and he will likely attempt to put all the bad blood in the past. I expect the loser to do the same. Someday, maybe when both fighters have long since retired, no one will remember that they had once bickered on television, had slung accusations at each other, and had nearly come to blows at a Las Vegas nightclub.
What we will remember is the fight, in the octagon, at UFC 145.
We will remember that someone won, that someone lost, and we will remember that when it was over we knew, without question, who the best Light Heavyweight in the world was at one moment in time. And that is the greatest quality, perhaps even the essence, of combat sports.