Most fans that I’ve talked with over the past few months believe Rashad Evans had to be just a bit disappointed when he first learned the identity of his opponent for UFC 108 on January 2.
After all, he had spent six weeks exchanging venomous barbs with bitter rival Quinton “Rampage” Jackson on the most recent installment of The Ultimate Fighter and was then reminded of those exchanges during the subsequent airing of the 11 episodes on Spike TV. The pair was supposed to work out their differences in a headlining bout at UFC 107 in Memphis, Tennessee, but Jackson’s foray into acting put that super fight on temporary hold.
Evans’ mind probably hoped that his replacement foe would be Lyoto Machida, the man who ripped the UFC light heavyweight championship from Evans’ Kung Fu grip at UFC 98 back in May. Machida was only a few weeks away from his first title defense at the time, and Evans made no bones about the fact that he wanted a shot to recapture the title. Unfortunately for Evans, that bout eliminated Machida from the replacement opponent equation, both because Machida suffered a hand injury that required surgery and the controversial nature of the judges’ decision demanded an instant rematch between Machida and Rua.
It would make sense to assume, therefore, that Evans experienced some level of emotional letdown when UFC boss Dana White announced that his opponent on January 2 would be Thiago Silva.
Not so fast.
On August 29, 2009, Silva knocked out Evans’ teammate and close friend Keith Jardine at UFC 102. Jardine is a big boy and certainly doesn’t need Evans running to his rescue. There is little doubt, though, that Silva’s trademark throat-cutting gesture following the knockout stuck sharply in the former champion’s craw, providing all the motivation he needs to ensure that he doesn’t overlook his dangerous Brazilian opponent at UFC 108.
Labeling Silva a “dangerous opponent” is far from hyperbole. This Brazilian mixed martial artist is a ferocious Thai-styled striker who learned the trade during legendary sparring sessions at the famed Chute Boxe Academy before perfecting those skills with the American Top Team, one of the sport’s most talent-rich training environments. And he just happens to have a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, so he is well prepared if the action evolves into a highly technical ground contest.
Suffice to say, if Evans doesn’t properly prepare for this bout, it is very likely that he will end up as another notch on Silva’s belt, right next to Jardine. Even if he does properly prepare, that is a very distinct possibility.
In order to maximize his odds at securing victory and stepping back to the front of 205-lb contenders’ line, Evans needs to counter with calculated aggression and at least create the threat of a takedown, if not score a takedown or two in the opening round.
There is no getting away from the fact that “Suga” likes to counter. He has the athleticism and skills to set the pace behind a quick, jackhammer jab, and that likely would be the most effective style for him (in theory, at least). Nonetheless, fighting behind the jab isn’t in his DNA when facing top-flight competition, so there is no reason for him to fight himself trying to be someone that he is not against a killer opponent like Silva.
Of course, countering does not necessarily mean waiting passively for an opponent to fire before attacking. That works for some fighters. Evans is more effective when he occasionally leads with a lead right or a lead left hook thrown with purpose, though not loaded up with bad intentions. In each instance, the shot is designed to exact damage, but also to elicit a response, and that is when Evans is especially deadly in his counter attacks.
Against Silva, who is a berserker on the feet, Evans can elicit a somewhat wild reaction if he is able to land a hard lead power shot. The former Chute Boxe pupil reacts to such situations with tempered rage, firing back with powerful combinations. Those shots, however, will be uncontrolled and wild in the face of a clean right hand or left hook because his sight and balance will be adversely affected for the split second that he returns fire with the initial salvo.
Evans can use his exceptional quickness and instincts to slip those shots and step inside for a goodnight right hand, cleanup left hook combination.
That sounds simple, but believe me, there is nothing simple about wading into the heart of darkness by engaging in a potential shootout with Silva. Evans needs to fire his counters, score effectively with them, and then get out of Dodge before he catches something in return on the chin.
Despite the fact that Silva can be wild, he is exceedingly comfortable in a firefight. That is due in large part to his natural mental makeup and also the countless hours of full-speed sparring at Chute Boxe with guys like Wanderlei Silva and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Time spent sharpening his boxing skills under Howard Davis at the American Top Team and sparring with the monsters who frequent that gym certainly doesn’t hurt matters, either.
Accordingly, Evans should avoid an all-out slugfest. He certainly has more speed and greater one-strike power than Silva, so Evans isn’t going to be at a tremendous disadvantage against Silva or just about anyone else when a fight breaks out in a phone booth. That doesn’t mean he should embrace those situations, because he is better when he picks his shots with short, mindful combinations. And there is no reason to allow the fight to go where Silva is most comfortable.
Speaking of comfortable, most assume that Silva is as comfortable on the ground as he is on his feet since he holds a BJJ black belt. While he is a very skilled submission artist, black belts in BJJ are not earned while getting punched in the face. That changes everything. Some guys go from a black belt to a blue belt when getting punched. Silva isn’t necessarily one of those guys, but he wants no part of getting pounded in his guard by a guy with Evans’ wrestling base and submission defense. Thus, I believe that Silva will be somewhat weary of going to his guard, knowing that Evans can likely put him there whenever he pleases.
Many people forget that Evans was a Division I collegiate wrestler at Michigan State. That fact is easy to forget because Evans has turned into a lights-out striker during his growth as a UFC fighter. And, more importantly, he smoothly blends his takedowns with strikes, making each of those techniques more effective when the fear of the other is ever-present.
Evans should bring the thought of a takedown from the back of Silva’s mind to its forefront by either feinting a shot early in the opening round or actually shooting in for a takedown. By doing that, he will cause Silva, who feeds off of his own aggression, to take a more hesitant approach to the fight. If Evans can get Silva into that mode, it will be an easy night because that isn’t who Silva is as a fighter, and anytime a fighter fights completely outside of himself, he struggles mightily more often than not.
If Evans does indeed take down his foe on January 2, he should not waste time trying to pass the guard or work for a Kimura, unless Silva is hurt or gassed. Punches or not, Silva’s submission skills are nothing to scoff at. He can catch an exposed arm from his guard or use a Kimura to sweep his opponent. Evans would therefore be better off working controlled ground and pound and standing up when he feels the least bit uncomfortable.
Once back on the feet, it’s all about returning to countering with calculated aggression.
Can Evans do it? Absolutely. He is the rightful favorite entering the fight. Odds are that he will earn his ninth win in 11 post-TUF UFC fights (he currently sits at 8-1-1). To live up to those odds, he needs to stay within himself and counter with calculated aggression. If he fights carelessly or shows up underprepared at UFC 108, then things could turn out very badly for the former champion.