For the sake of the entire light-heavyweight division, I sincerely hope 'Suga' Rashad Evans is able to, at the very least, show a way of one day solving the Rubik's Cube that is current UFC 205 lb champion Jon 'Bones' Jones this coming Saturday (April 21) at UFC 145.
He doesn't even have to necessarily beat him -- he just has to prove it can be done... one day... someday. Because, as it stands right now, that task seems a step too far for just about everybody in the division and, truthfully, Evans remains perhaps their only hope of overthrowing a man regarded as the most dominant and devastating champion in the sport.
By my way of thinking, should Evans fail on Saturday night, there will be just two further, immediate challengers equipped to offer any kind of threat to Jones' reign. Veteran Dan Henderson and prospect Alexander Gustafsson. Opposite ends of their mixed martial arts journey, perhaps, but both would, at some point, shout for a shot if Evans falls short this weekend.
Of course, one could argue the merits of both but, what is also clear is that 'Hendo' and the Swede require Evans to show them something, anything, in this upcoming challenge for them to actively seek the title shot, let alone hold a hope of winning the belt. If Evans can't better Jones at any stage, in either the striking or wrestling departments, then it's unlikely the slower and more predictable Henderson will be able to, despite possessing the heavier hands of the two.
The same goes for the less-experienced Gustafsson, a lanky and long-limbed striker, but someone who has already been out-wrestled and submitted by Phil Davis, a man Evans recently took to school.
Indeed, styles determine fights, and no two fighters are exactly the same, but, should Evans flop this weekend, the future will look bleak for everybody else without a title in the 205 lb weight division. The man nicknamed 'Bones' has a super-tight stranglehold on that number one slot and appears nowhere near ready to let go. He is, after all, only 24 years of age and the likelihood is that he will only improve and increase the gap on his rivals in the coming years.
Take Jones' last fight, for example, a second round submission win over former champion Lyoto Machida. Now, as far as templates go, Machida constructed the most accurate and easy to follow set of guidelines to date. He demonstrated a way to frustrate and out-score Jones, at least for five minutes, and did so by exposing slight holes in his stand-up game. In fact, for a fifth of the fight, the Brazilian appeared on course to produce something special that December night. He clearly won the opening round and had Jones twitchy and anxious on his stool in between rounds.
Alas, the champion switched things up in the next round and duly ended matters, thanks to a nasty guillotine choke against the fence. Machida was left to slump to the floor on liquid limbs, his dreams, like so many others, crushed at the moment Jones felt obliged to end matters.
Although performing as sloppily as he'd ever done in that first round, the manner of the finish and ease at which Jones was able to turn the tables on a world-class striker was truly staggering. Not only that, but the result sent a stark warning to the rest of the division, many of whom don't possess the striking ability necessary to lay the foundations the way Machida did for five minutes at UFC 140. Certainly Evans, while athletic and explosive, doesn't have the same grasp of timing and distance, nor the technical ability, of southpaw Machida. Not to mention the poise and patience to lure Jones in and punish his every minor mistake. No, Evans is many things, but he's not a precision striker in the way of Lyoto.
So, that begs the question, what can Evans do that Machida couldn't last December? Well, for starters, although his punches may not travel as straight or crisp, he surely boasts a tad more power, especially in his arching right hand, thrown from somewhere over his head, but packing an uncanny ability to land on the chin of opponents. He has stopped Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin and Tito Ortiz with heavy, thudding strikes and can clearly cause damage when in range. Of course, it's worth remembering the aforementioned three come with, approximately, 0.01 percent of Jones' elusiveness, but that is neither here nor there. We are, lest we forget, trying to inspire confidence in a weight-class currently lassoed by an expert gunslinger with seemingly few weaknesses.
Also, Evans, though smaller and less rangy, may be able to close distance with sheer speed and smarts on Saturday night. He has always been fast over a short distance and is able to shut down range in the blink of an eye, something he will no doubt need against Jones, a man blessed with an astonishing 84-inch reach. Rashad needs to turn positions of safety into positions of attack, and must do so without catching anything in between those two points. No easy task, especially when opposing somebody just as quick as he is.
Moving away from the striking battle, there's every chance Evans may choose to employ his high-level wrestling skills to try and get something memorable done on Saturday night. He used this very tactic to diffuse both Rampage Jackson and Phil Evans and, though entertainment was sacrificed as a result, picked up relatively straightforward victories. While Jones is clearly a cut above both Jackson and Davis at this juncture, we have yet to see the champion taken down and parked on his back for any length of time since he joined the UFC in 2008. And, if anybody appears prepped to do that, it's probably Evans. Therefore, in removing the unknown and asking the question, it would herald something of a breakthrough.
All in all, from the outside looking in, it seems Evans enters this bout with a puncher's chance and a wrestler's chance. Granted, that's significantly better than just a puncher's chance, something Rampage clawed on to against Jones last September, but may still not prove to be enough. What I can be certain about is this -- should Evans fail in his challenge, the way bookmakers expect, then mark up Jones as world light-heavyweight champion for the foreseeable future, at least until the next Jon Jones comes around in, let's say, 2020...
UFC 145 take place this Saturday live from Atlanta on Pay-Per-View.