What we learned from UFC 114
Evans continues to improve in the facets that Jackson has flatlined in
Even with the win, Evans is a definite underdog if and when he fights Mauricio Rua
The growth of British fighters continues with 22-year-old John Hathaway
Here are five things we learned from Saturday night's UFC 114 in Las Vegas:
1. Rashad Evans wanted to send Quinton Jackson an early message.
There was a price to pay for standing in front of him. At the opening bell of the three-round light heavyweight main event at UFC 114 in Las Vegas Saturday, Evans cracked "Rampage" with a right hand that sent him scuffling across the cage.
The key for Evans, who earned a unanimous decision (30-27 twice and 29-28), was fostering a measure of uncertainty in Jackson's mind. Will he wrestle? Will he strike? If Jackson didn't know for sure, both avenues of attack would be there. And they were.
Over the 15-minute fight, Evans (15-1-1) played it the right way: use quick feet to close the gap; stifle the powerful Jackson's clinch with better wrestling technique and capitalize on takedowns when Jackson left himself open.
The game plan -- even though Evans said he didn't have a game plan -- was sound. It allowed him to remain fluid and keep Jackson (30-8) guessing, which created frustration and mistakes from his rival.
For all the hype, talk, and racial garbage brought to bear by both men prior to the fight, emotions remained largely in check, save Evans rushing at Jackson after that first punch landed.
Jackson found a glimmer of hope at the top of the third round, when he cracked the top of Evans' head and followed with a heavy does of ground-and-pound.
"I went numb for a little bit, but that's what happens sometimes," Evans said with a smile. "I was fighting through it in my mind and I was like I'm not giving up no matter what. I'm just moving forward."
It was there, in that moment pinned along the fence taking heavy right hands, where Evans proved his mettle by regaining his feet and making the most of Jackson's failure to go after him by lunging for a double-leg underneath a hasty lead right.
"I was very surprised that he recovered from that," said Jackson, who admitted to suffering from ring rust after a 14-month layoff brought on when he skipped out on a bout against Evans last December in favor of playing B.A. Baracus in the new A-Team flick. Jackson ballooned up to 251 pounds during filming and spent much of his camp rounding into shape so he could get in fight shape.
Evans, meanwhile, refined and worked and got better. Where Jackson's skills have flatlined over the past two years -- and some might argue they've regressed -- Evans continues to improve with a team dedicated to that cause.
The biggest difference between the two tonight: their dedication to MMA.
2. Can Evans beat Shogun?
Now that he's proven himself to be a better mixed martial artist than Jackson, Evans can look ahead to a UFC title shot against Mauricio Rua. The current light heavyweight champion is an entirely different fighter than Rampage, though Evans' path to victory wouldn't look much different than it did tonight in Las Vegas.
The question then: How probable is it that Evans wrestles Shogun and stalemates his clinch?
Evans would have to fight on the inside, though tying up on the feet is a poor idea against a Muay Thai stylist of Rua's caliber. That means, again, he'd need to set up powerful double-legs from distance, which is a strength. Evans has shown the ability over several fights to cover space with remarkable speed and power. Working against him versus Shogun (19-4): the champion isn't one to stay flat-footed like Jackson or Thiago Silva.
The 28-year-old Brazilian is always moving and mostly stalking. He's a good counter-grappler, and has shut down wrestlers in the past -- none with the physical tools that Evans brings into a fight.
So, how probable? Maybe Evans wins four out of 10 fights. Maybe. I like Rua to hold on to his title when the two meet later this year.
3. Playing the heel
I don't understand the animosity some fans display for fighters like Evans and Michael Bisping, who took a unanimous decision over Dan Miller to boos at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. No matter what they accomplish in the cage, fans just can't seem to stand them. How about paying respects to their skill and hard work? You don't have to like a fighter's style, but at least respect its effectiveness. Recognize that the opponent opposite Evans or Bisping (18-3) is responsible for shutting them down -- and most of the time they have not been able to.
And don't tell me that either man's fight tonight was boring. There was nothing slow about Bisping's shellacking of Miller (11-4), who decided to forgo his strength on the ground and slug it out against the 31-year-old Englishman. And Evans-Jackson was a tense struggle between two well-matched, similarly skilled opponents. Booing guy after he fights well enough and smart enough to win is ridiculous.
4. Never say never in this sport
Mike Russow was Homer Simpson to Todd Duffee's Drederick Tatum. If you don't know The Simpsons reference, think of it like this: Russow, soft around the midsection like Homer, took an ungodly amount of punishment about his head until one right hand -- the only meaningful punch he landed in two-plus rounds -- zinged Duffee's brain and put the formerly undefeated heavyweight prospect down. It was, perhaps, the most improbable finish I've ever seen in MMA.
Don't dismiss the athletic, muscular Duffee (6-1) as some weak-chinned kid. Everyone loses in MMA, and he'll learn more here than from his six previous wins combined. Russow, a Chicago police officer, upped his record to 13-1 with the stunning finish. And by "stunning" I mean absolutely impossible.
The same feeling manifested during Jason Brilz's near upset of Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (19-3). No one -- me included -- gave Brilz a chance, yet by all rights he deserved to win a decision over one of the top light heavyweights in MMA. Judges cage-side disagreed. Tony Weeks and Marcos Rosales saw it 29-28 for the Brazilian, while Patricia Morse Jarmon went the other way.
Brilz (18-3-1) and Russow stole the show.
5. British invasion
The UFC has done well cultivating British talent since they began promoting there full-time in 2007. We know names like Bisping, Dan Hardy and Paul Daley. Make sure you remember John Hathaway, who pushed his record to 13-0 with a decisive, cutting decision win against fan favorite Diego Sanchez.
Unlike earlier models of British fighters, the 22-year-old Hathaway appears equipped to handle wrestlers, which has long been his countrymen's biggest handicap in MMA. A tall, rangy kid with tempered striking, Hathaway dominated Sanchez (21-4), whose return to the welterweight division after a stint at 155 saw him outmaneuvered and out-struck. Impressive all the way around.