It’s rare in this sport that you have such a polarizing figure as Rashad Evans, considering he has never been in any public trouble, is a loving father and husband, tries his best, and is overall a really likeable guy — the one you’d want alongside you if you’re going to the bar or moving a couch out of your basement.
On one side of the debate is a completely enthralled group who is excited to cheer on a class act who is likeable, talented, and brings the cool and hip NFL quarterbackstyle demeanor to the world of MMA.
On the other side is a crowd who is a bit more snarly, upset at Evans’ perceived showboating tactics, and more than excited to see Evans lose — especially in situations like his UFC 99 defeat to Lyoto Machida in Evans’ first defense of the UFC Light Heavyweight title.
Regardless of your core belief, it’s important to understand the formula that brought Evans to the forefront of the light heavyweight division and the things that make him tick. Three very important characterbuilding traits emerge: leadership, teamwork, and friendship. All three have been combined with his work ethic to create a winner, a champion, and a great person.
Two men stand out as the architects of helping mold the 30-year-old and understand his personality more than anyone else: super trainer Greg Jackson, and Michigan State wrestling coach and icon Tom Minkel.
The Spartan Way
One of eight kids in a single-parent home, Evans was a multi-sport standout in football and wrestling at Niagara-Wheatfield High School in upstate New York. The twotime All-State wrestler graduated in 1998 and stayed close to home by enrolling in Niagara County Community College and joining the wrestling team.
Within two years, Evans had won the National Junior College 165-pound title, catching the eye of a much bigger fish in a much bigger pond. Michigan State University saw something in Evans and brought him on to compete at 174 pounds. His guide at MSU? Just one of the more decorated and well-respected coaches in the sport in Tom Minkel.
Minkel’s background is among the very best. In 18 seasons in East Lansing, Mich, he has led the Spartans to Top 25 finishes at the NCAA Championships in 11 of the last 15 seasons. In addition, he was the head coach for the bronze-medal-winning 1992 U.S. Olympic team, three U.S. World teams, and one US Pan-Am team. Along the way, no fewer than 35 All-Americans, 13 Big Ten Champs, and two NCAA Champions have emerged under his guidance.
In other words, Evans was going to a very good place with a man who knew how to extract the very best. But while the jump may have felt like a no-brainer from the outside looking in, Minkel knew there was going to be an adjustment period in going A strong mind and expert tutelage have molded the former UFC champion from a small community college in Evans’ backyard to one of the bigger universities in the country.
“Probably the most striking thing about him was that this was a young man who had to fend for himself and figure things out without a lot of family guidance or structure or support,” Minkel said. “(The transfer) was probably harder on him than most of us had imagined, but when you get to know him, the dominant thing that sticks out is his personality. He’s a resilient young man, strong and very smart.”
Minkel cited the team atmosphere as something that was very important to Evans’ transition to the bigger stage. He was immediately accepted into the Spartan way of life and responded in kind, racking up a 48-34 record in 3 years as a starter. One of those wins was over three-time Division I Champion Greg Jones — he of the 126-4 career record — foreshadowing of big-time success against big-time opponents later on in life.
Minkel thought enough of Evans to offer him a position as his third assistant coach following graduation. As he was just starting out in his pro MMA career under the guidance of another wrestling legend and UFC Hall-of-Famer Dan Severn, Evans’ role was flexible in that he came in when he could and traveled when time allowed him to. But while there, Evans took the opportunity to further develop the characteristics displayed during his run as a coach on season 10 of The Ultimate Fighter.
“Much as anything, he served as a role model for our kids, and a number of them have gone into the fight business since then,” Minkel said. “He set a good example for how you could make the move from college wrestling into the fight business.”
Following a 5-0 run under Severn, Evans got the nod to join the heavyweight roster for the second season of The Ultimate Fighter. It was around the time of the finale that Evans met Greg Jackson, trainer of castmate and friend Keith Jardine. Following his victory over Brad Imes, which earned him a 3-year deal, Evans was asked to become part of Jackson’s growing camp – lighting the fuse that would result in a run for the Light Heavyweight title.
If Minkel’s tutelage was undergraduate study, Evans was heading to fighter grad school.
The Education of a Champion
To understand Jackson’s contributions to the sport, is to witness a fully encompassing efficiency machine and system that trains both the body and mind. Cited by many as a genius in the sport, Jackson’s Albuquerque, NM-based operation has created and trained some of the best in the business, including Georges St. Pierre, Nate Marquardt, Jardine, and dozens more.
Upon meeting Evans for the first time, Jackson “instantly liked him. He was real guarded and reserved, but I could tell right away that he was a great guy and had a great talent for fighting,” Jackson explained. “Keith Jardine is one of my best friends in the whole world, so when he said this guy should be on our team, that’s all I needed. It was a no-brainer as I was excited to have someone of that caliber on our team.”
The early career success Evans enjoyed continued with Jackson as he ripped off an eight-fight unbeaten streak, punctuated by consecutive victories over Michael Bisping, Chuck Liddell, and Forrest Griffin, the latter a third-round TKO win at UFC 92 that earned Evans the Light Heavyweight title.
Something Jackson is especially proficient at is preparing the mind, an under appreciated aspect of a sport that is based around aggression and attack. But having been on the main stage before, he knows it doesn’t take a lot of work to keep Evans’ head in the game; rather, it’s an effort to make sure Evans sticks to the fundamentals that guide any great athlete.
“It’s a lot of reinforcement and reminding him that he’s going to be one of the best. A lot of it he can do himself just because he’s competed for so long. Keeping him focused is what we need to do. He flips his own switch, and as long as I keep him focused and calm without getting into too much detail, he usually performs very well,” Jackson said.
It’s often said that the measure of a man is how he reacts in the face of adversity. It’s easy when one is on the winning side of the ledger, but how one reacts when he is pulling himself off the canvas can speak volumes to character.
In the second round of Evans’ first title defense against Lyoto Machida, the karate expert overwhelmed Evans with punches, punctuated by a left hook that knocked him out and took away the belt he had fought so hard to win.
What happened after this, however, convinced Jackson that Evans wouldn’t need any pep talks or extensive counseling to get over his first career defeat. Simply, the best remedy was to get right back to work, which was made easier by the support of the team around them who had all been through it before.
“The thing I liked was that Rashad was really mad he lost and then he was really fun
ny about it, making jokes about how he was snoring and how he couldn’t believe he was so dumb to be talking (expletive) during an exchange,” Jackson said, citing the culture of support within the team as a major help. “When you hear that from a fighter, you don’t need to rebuild them. Rashad Evans is as tough as they come, and he’s already rebuilt himself.”
Minkel — who still assists Evans before fights on a variety of mental toughness exercises — couldn’t agree more.
“He has his priorities straight and certainly wants to be a champ. But he also understands that if you suffer a defeat, you don’t cry and whine about it but go back to the drawing board to figure out what you did wrong. He’s a professional, classy young man and a credit to what ultimate fighting can be.”
The Man Today
During season 10 of TUF, viewers got a true sense of the man that Evans has become — a product of the teachings of Minkel and Jackson. While opposing coach and blood rival Rampage Jackson was portrayed as an antagonist and less of a coach than a television character, Evans’ warm personality and desire to make others around him better shined through. There was no better example than him consoling Demico Rogers following his loss to Team Evans member Brendan Schaub as Rampage remained outside the cage in disgust.
This attitude wasn’t a surprise to Jackson, who was thrilled at how TUF 10 has showed his detractors that Evans has plenty of substance to back up the style.
“When you make judgments without really understanding the situation — or more dangerously, when you think you understand the situation and make a judgment — you can make a negative impact. This reality show has been great for the people that had those preconceived notions of Rashad. Even if you don’t like the guy, you have to respect the man he is.”
It was a trend that continued throughout the season as Evans’ fighters systematically tore through Team Rampage. While the confrontations between Rampage and Rashad were highlighted, they illuminated the different mentality between the two and approach to the task at hand — forged by years of working with Minkel and Jackson and learning how to do things the right way.
Outside the cage, both coaches paint a picture of a man who has learned who he is and what he wants to become: a great teammate and playful friend, a mentor to anyone who needs it, someone who you’d want to represent the sport, and someone undeserving of the scorn from his detractors.
“Out of the cage, he’s sweet, kind, and very, very smart. In the cage, he’s focused on what he needs to do. He gets nervous like other fighters, but as he becomes stronger, a better fighter, and more complete, you can see him become a lot more confident in there,” Jackson said.
If Rashad Evans is going to become more confident after just one loss in 15 pro fights and one UFC title win, the rest of the Light Heavyweight division has plenty of reasons to be concerned.