The bad blood started all the way back in March of 2009 at UFC 96 with a promotional face-off. Quinton Jackson had just beaten Rashad Evans’ best friend and training partner, Keith Jardine, and the two exchanged verbal blows about who would knock who out when they met. It came to a boil as we watched them coach opposite each other on Season 10 of The Ultimate Fighter only to be blotted dry when Rampage turned B.A. Baracus and decided to film the A-Team movie instead of fight Rashad at UFC 107 last December in Jackson’s home town Memphis, Tennessee. The temperature got turned back up as the rivalry played out on three consecutive weekly episodes of the highest rated Primetime series in UFC history and a conference call that may rank up there with the most entertaining in MMA history as the two couldn’t leave each other alone for more than a few minutes.
Finally, after all the hype, all the heat, all the derogatory comments and a full fourteen months since that first faceoff in Ohio, the two stepped into the Octagon and made history as two African American fighters headlined a major MMA event for the very first time. And when the final bell rang after fifteen full minutes it was apparent that “Suga” Rashad was too fast, too technical and too good of a wrestler for Rampage to make good on his promise of destroying his opponent.
The common wisdom coming into the event was that Rashad had to get the fight to the ground or risk having a questionable chin tested by his more powerful opponent. The opening seconds of the first round saw Rashad make the common wisdom look silly as he hit Rampage with an overhand right that sent him reeling across the cage. But the common wisdom looked to make a comeback when Rampage had Rashad seeing flashbacks from his win over Thiago Silva where he implemented solid wrestling and wore Silva out for two rounds only to get rocked in the third. While he looked to be in deeper waters with Jackson…he said he “went numb” for a bit…he was again able to recover and win the fight in convincing fashion with 30-27 scores from two judges and 29-28 from the other.
After the fight, the two exchanged kinder words in the cage and buried the hatchet, somewhat. A half hour later, Rampage said that he won’t forget the things Rashad said and that he can “kiss his black ass” while saying that he wanted a rematch. Rashad returned the favor, telling Rampage to “kiss his ass” as well and that he is thrilled to not have to talk about Jackson anymore. The two were as civil as they’ve been since UFC 96, but you get the feeling that this rivalry could get ignited quicker than a Mike Russow comeback. (More on that later.) A surprisingly gracious Rampage commended Rashad for his gameplan, speed and wrestling while questioning in the next breath how much of a difference 14 months out of the cage may have made. He clearly gave the impression that he still fancies himself the better fighter and referred to Rashad as a great athlete, not a great fighter. But the future for the part-time actor, part-time fighter is anything but clear or certain. Rampage said that he’d like back in the cage as soon as possible and would like to rematch Rashad at some point. Minutes later, however, he revealed that he had multiple movie offers on the table and that he has to make decisions because it would be hard to take time off and then come in and fight UFC caliber fighters. And to confuse matters more, he added some icing to the confusion cake when he said that he “almost regret(s) doing the damn movie stuff now” because of the demands and pressures that it put on him before the fight and the demands it will put on him after. Only time will tell what he decides the future will hold, but he will take a huge fan base with him wherever he goes.
For Evans, the future is like crystal…a date with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua for a shot at recapturing Light Heavyweight gold. He will carry a two-fight win streak into the five-round affair that has seen him return to his roots and make his wrestling a focal point of his attack. “Sometimes when you find success, like I did with my stand up, you get away from the strongest parts of your game, like my wrestling.” Will Rashad’s speed, footwork, technical striking and takedowns be enough to neutralize and contain the aggressive Muay Thai style and high level jits that Shogun brings to the party? Given that Rashad came out of tonight’s fight unscathed, expect to get the answer to that question before the calendar says 2011.
• Michael Bisping outstruck Dan Miller for three rounds to score a unanimous decision. While there was a lot of pre-fight chatter that Miller would use his BJJ Black Belt to take Bisping down and submit him, Miller attempted only one takedown in the first twelve and one-half minutes of the fight, successfully getting a double leg with 2:44 left in the final stanza. Miller was a gamer with the wrong gameplan, while Bisping would love to get a rematch with Wanderlei Silva.
• If you looked at muscular Todd Duffee and, let me be flattering here, not so muscular Mike Russow, you’d be running to the casino and laying down your cash on Duffee, a 3½ – 1 favorite coming into the fight. After watching Duffee dominate Russow for the first two rounds, you’d have probably been comfortable laying 10-1 on the outcome. Then it happened. Midway through the third round, Russow landed a right hand right on the button that resulted in Duffee landing on the canvas with a loud thud and the now 13-1 Russow cashing the Knockout of the Night bonus.
• Antonio Rogerio Nogueira was supposed to face Forrest Griffin until he pulled out with a shoulder injury. Jason Brilz agreed to the fight on short notice because he was excited for the opportunity to see how he matched up with one of the elite 205 pounders in the world. Brilz didn’t just match up with Nogueira, he beat him. Ask anybody who watched it, except two of the judges who gave the fight to Nogueira. Brilz used good wrestling and a number of guillotine chokes that almost ended Lil Nog’s night to take rounds one and two. While the Brazilian deserved the third round, the crowd understandably booed loud and long when Brilz was denied the biggest win of his career. He will be able to soothe the pain of the loss with his share of the 65K Fight of the Night Bonus.
• One guy who wasn’t deprived of the breakout win of his career was 22-year-old John Hathaway. The Englishman came into his domestic UFC debut against perennial star Diego Sanchez with three straight UFC wins and a 12-0 overall record. Hathaway demoralized and rocked Diego in the first round by calmly defending takedowns, beating him on the striking exchanges and nearly finishing him with a knee to the face that almost put the Nightmare in a dream state. A 10-8 round in my book. Rounds two and three saw a visibly slower Sanchez mount no real threat to the larger Hathaway who walked away with a unanimous decision, 30-27 on two cards and 30-26 on the other. I’m still not sure why Diego went back to 170 after the loss to BJ. 155 makes a lot more sense for him.