Rashad Evans began his mixed martial arts journey like many others: he entered the sport after graduating from Michigan State University, where he was an NCAA Division I wrestler.
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Finding tutelage under another iconic grappler turned MMA legend in Dan “The Beast” Severn, Evans would kick off his professional fighting career with an impressive 5-0 start.
Although well-known to collegiate wrestling fans, MMA fans first came to know of “Suga” during season two of The Ultimate Fighter, which aired back in 2005. Evans joined the cast as a heavyweight, though he had spent his brief MMA career to that point in the light heavyweight division.
An underdog in every one of his bouts in the house, the undersized Evans overcame the odds due to his grit, wrestling skills, and superior cardio en route to going 3-0 on the show. This lead to him meeting ex-Arena Football League offensive tackle Brad Imes in the finals live on SPIKE TV.
At 6’7” and having to cut to make the heavyweight limit of 265 lbs, Imes towered over Evans. But “Suga” didn’t let the size disparity bother him in the least. He went to work from the opening bell and toppled the behemoth multiple times throughout the bout.
After three rounds, Evans was granted a split-decision victory, a new car, a six-figure UFC contract, and the prestigious title of “The Ultimate Fighter”.
Evans promptly dropped back to 205 lbs after his run on the show. He also switched camps, training under the famed Greg Jackson in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
This was when we saw the still-raw fighter really start to come into his own.
The rise of Rashad Evans
Throughout 2006, Rashad Evans went 3-0, earning decision wins over Sam Hoger and Ultimate Fighter legend Stephen Bonnar, and knocking out Jason Lambert. The UFC brass knew they had something special on their hands, and they decided to give the Niagra Falls native a chance to shine.
And shine he did.
In his first UFC main event slot, the former Michigan State Spartan would meet promotional newcomer Sean Salmon at UFC Fight Night 8.
Salmon was a former Ohio State wrestler, and he had amassed a 9-1 record at the time he stood across from Evans on that night. It was just minutes into the second round that Evans landed a head kick that separated Salmon from his consciousness, rendering him frozen stiff and generating one of the greatest highlights the sport has ever seen.
The highlight-reel knockout would lead to Evans earning his toughest test yet, in the form of former UFC light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz. That bout would be declared a draw after Ortiz, who was up on the scorecards, had a point deducted for grabbing the cage. Evans would’ve lost 29-28 had it not been for Ortiz’s infraction, but with the resulting draw, he remained undefeated.
After a hard-fought win over Michael Bisping four months later, Evans would be paired up against another one of the biggest stars in the brief history of MMA, Chuck Liddell, in a pay-per-view main event.
At the time, Liddell was 1-2 in his last three fights. Despite his losing record, “The Iceman” had proven he still had some gas in the tank by winning a “Fight of the Year” contender against Wanderlei Silva in his then-most-recent outing. Evans would meet the former champion at UFC 88.
Oddsmakers would once again brand Evans as an underdog.
Always possessing the power, Evans boxing technique was much crisper at this point in his career. Evans’ gameplan included looking to counter Liddell with his massive overhand right. It landed in the first round, but it was in the second that it flat-out ended Liddell.
With a single blow, The Ultimate Fighter had earned himself a shot at UFC gold.
Rashad Evans would rise to the occasion and TKO then-champion Forrest Griffin in the third round at UFC 92, but his title reign would, unfortunately for him, be short-lived.
Just five months later karateka Lyoto Machida would violently end his undefeated streak with an unforgettable knockout.
Rashad Evans then took some time off from fighting in the cage to do some verbal sparring against his fellow coach Quinton “Rampage” Jackson on The Ultimate Fighter. The season featured viral sensation Kimbo Slice, and it was one of the highest rated in the show’s history.
The beef between the coaches made for some unforgettable trash talk, as the two were scheduled to fight at the show’s end. Those plans were postponed, however, so Jackson could film The A-Team.
With his recognition with the public at an all-time high, Evans would headline UFC 108 against Thiago Silva and pick up yet another victory. While it was intriguing enough of a fight, the fans were still clamoring for Evans to meet Jackson. In May of 2010, they’d get their wish.
The meeting was three rounds of Evans masterfully mixing up his striking and takedowns. “Rampage” did manage to drop Evans in the third, but Evans persevered and continued his otherwise dominant display.
Thirsty for a violent end to the rivalry, the fans in attendance booed throughout the contest. Even with the jeers from the onlookers filling the arena, Evans stayed composed and kept to the game plan. While it wasn’t the slugfest people had hoped for, it was a technical showing for the victor.
Evans went on to dismantle Tito Ortiz in a rematch and TKO him within two rounds. Five months later, he’d halt the momentum of a young, undefeated fighter, NCAA D-I wrestling champion and future Bellator champion Phil Davis.
With a four-fight win streak in tow, Evans would score another chance to earn his former crown.
PRIDE legend Mauricio “Shogun” Rua was the champion at the time. “Shogun” was scheduled to defend his UFC title against Evans at UFC 128, but an injury nixed those plans.
Six weeks prior to the event, during the UFC 126 broadcast, the UFC shared that Rashad Evans had blown out his knee and had pulled from the title bout. Joe Rogan was conducting post-fight interviews that night, as per usual, and asked one of the competitors if he’d be willing to fill the void left by Evans and battle “Shogun” for the title.
The 23-year-old prospect gleefully accepted the offer.
Jon Jones would get a chance to become the youngest champion in UFC history.
Jones and Evans were by all accounts friends before the offer was presented; the Jackson-Wink training partners spent a lot of time together in New Mexico. Evans wasn’t sure how to feel about the arrival of the upstart at first, but his coaches assured him they’d never have to fight each other.
As training partners, Evans and Jones themselves had built a bond forged in blood in the gym and eventually made a pact to never fight each other. When Jones accepted the seemed the title shot, “Suga” seemed okay with the whole situation. He gave the fight his blessing and picked Jones to win.
Then Jones went on The MMA Hour ahead of the big fight with Rua. He was open about the fact that while he wouldn’t want to, he would fight Evans should the situation arise. The once-strong foundation on which the pair’s friendship was built now seemed on shaky ground.
Jones even allegedly pulled Evans aside at a club to warn him that he would “make him a highlight” if they ever did meet in the cage.
After Jones beat “Shogun”, the UFC brought Evans into the Octagon and announced he would be the next challenger. This prompted Evans to leave their mutual training grounds to work with Jorge Santiago, Tyrone Spong, and others at the camp that would later become known as the Blackzillians.
When they met at UFC 145, some gave Evans the first round due to his landing of a nice head kick, but that’s neither here nor there. Jones controlled the bout from bell-to-bell for most of the 25 minutes and handed Evans a loss in their grudge match.
The fight would mark Evans’ last chance to regain his lost gold.
Early in 2013, looking to bounce back, Rashad Evans met Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. There was something different about the once dynamic combatant; Evans seemed a bit sluggish.
In his next fight, he took a split-decision win over Dan Henderson, but that was also a forgettable affair.
When he met Chael Sonnen later that year, we saw some of that old Evans ‘pop’ return. He finished “The American Gangster” in under a round via TKO.
Ten days before he was supposed to fight Daniel Cormier at UFC 170, the injury bug again reared its ugly head. Evans injured his knee yet again.
It would be two years before he returned to the Octagon, and the toll on his body from fourteen years of fighting, a lifetime of wrestling, and multiple surgeries was evident. Evans would lose his next five fights in a row.
He tried to drop to middleweight, a class most people felt he was better suited for throughout his career, but the attempt was in vain.
In 2018, a couple of weeks after a knockout loss to Anthony Smith, Evans decided it was time to hang up the gloves.
His impact on the sport is often understated. Since he was often playing the spoiler to fan favorites, it seems many people have a skewed impression of Evans. Between 2007 and 2013, he headlined 12 PPVs that generated over 6 million total buys. Evans played an integral role in the propagation of the UFC and building of it into the brand fans across the globe know today.
While there is plenty to say about the UFC Hall of Fame, if we take it at face value, there are few more deserving than “Suga” Rashad Evans.
Brandon is a long-time fan of combat sports who has covered them for various outlets since 2017.