Lots of guys talk trash in the months, weeks and days leading up to a fight. The banter helps sell the bout to the public, and some of those combatants actually have real bad blood between them.
Count Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and “Suga” Rashad Evans among those few because these guys genuinely dislike each other. Anyone who watched even a single episode of tenth season of The Ultimate Fighter witnessed the deep-seeded animosity that exists between the two former champions. The pair routinely came within a whisper of throwing down on the set, something that would have been disastrous in the bigger picture. Yet, those close calls and the nonstop, venom-laden trash talking have built up the anticipation for Saturday’s matchup into a foamy, palpable lather.
Nobody is immune from the hype--veteran insiders and casual fans alike. Everybody loves when two bitter rivals square off, including me. Suffice to say that I haven’t looked this forward to a fight since the first bout between Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz.
On the surface, this matchup is very easy to break down. Rampage is the better boxer—period. His technique is better. His arsenal is more diverse. He has legitimate lights-out power in both hands. And he brings a thicker set of whiskers into the Octagon. Accordingly, Rampage will certainly want to keep the fight standing and put his hands on Evans early and often in search of a crowd-pleasing knockout.
If Evans opts to stand and trade with Rampage, then the fight may come to a quick end, with Evans lying in a crumbled heap on the canvas. Of course, Evans is nobody’s fool. He knows that he cannot stand recklessly with Rampage, just like he knew that he couldn’t recklessly stand and trade with Thiago Silva in his last fight. He will instead look to take down Rampage at every opportunity and keep the action on the ground for as long as possible. If he can do that, he wins. If not, it will probably be a very tough night for the TUF winner.
Sounds pretty simple, right?
Yes and no. The game plan is simple. Executing the game plan for either man is something altogether different.
Iconic former champion Chuck Liddell tried to stand and bang with Evans and a lightning-fast right hand on the button dropped Liddell like he had been shot with a 12-gauge shotgun. The same thing happened to former champion Forrest Griffin.
Similarly, former two-time Olympic wrestler Dan Henderson tried to take down and control Rampage in their historic 205-lb title unification bout. He instead found himself on the wrong end of slams and ground control. Kevin Randleman, one of the best collegiate wrestlers to ever enter the Octagon, also learned the hard way that taking down Rampage is no walk in the park.
As a result, this fight is about more than Rampage planting his feet and recklessly swinging away or Evans repeatedly diving in for takedowns. It’s about two great light heavies going in and trying to impose their will on the other man in calculated, effectively aggressive fashion.
For Rampage, that means fighting behind a quick, snapping jab and regularly mixing in diverse two- and three-piece combinations that include right hands down the pipe, overhand rights, uppercuts with either hand, clean-up left hooks and check hooks. By constantly mixing his combinations, he will keep Evans off balance. When Evans is off balance, he tends to be more tentative with his counters, which opens the door for Rampage, who is an expert counterstriker, to land something that Evans doesn’t see coming. And that will be the beginning of the end, if not the end itself.
But again, Rampage must refrain from recklessly swinging away because Evans is an expert counterstriker in his own right. He is ultra dangerous when he sits down and commits to his counterpunches because he has the fastest hands in the division, bar none.
Unlike most counterpunchers, however, Suga doesn’t like to slip punches and fire back. His forte is countering before his opponent completes a strike. In other words, he fires a counter off of his opponent’s tell sign, and his blazing hand speed allows him to land first in those instances.
The perfect example is when Evans fought Liddell. Evans noticed during pre-fight film study that Liddell’s expression changed or his face curled up with determination milliseconds before he fired a lead power punch, so he sat back and waited for that moment to arrive. Evans fired a fully committed right hand the instant Liddell tipped his hand with his tell sign, and the punch landed right on the button, immediately ending the fight.
I watched virtually all of Rampage’s PRIDE and UFC fights in the last week looking for such a tell sign. I’ll admit that I couldn’t find one. But, alas, I wasn’t watching through the eyes of a professional fighter whose living depends on him noticing such things.
Even if such a tell does exist, I don’t think that is the best path to victory against Rampage. Remember, Rampage is the far superior boxer. Trevor Wittman is probably throwing his computer across the room after reading that statement, but that doesn’t change the facts. Yes, it’s a fact. Just accept it.
Hanging around in the pocket waiting to time Rampage’s tell sign—again, assuming one exists—is a recipe for disaster for any fighter, Evans included. That is particularly true when a guy isn’t known for having the sturdiest set of whiskers in the game. Remember, Evans was put on crazy legs in each of his last two fights. The first ended with a knockout loss to Machida and the second probably would have ended the same way had Silva shown up with a deeper gas tank.
I’m not sure that Rampage will put Evans on crazy legs. He hits with far more concussive force than either Machida or Silva. Thus, any big shot from Rampage that lands on the button will, in my opinion, result in a knockout, no crazy legs included.
Evans would be far better served to use his striking solely as a bridge to his wrestling. He did that masterfully in his bout with Silva, until late in the final round when both men were fighting on empty. Throughout the first two rounds, Evans threw slapping arm punches that weren’t in any way designed to score big points or lead to a knockout.
Keep in mind that throwing punches with bad intentions requires a fighter to throw the shots from his legs with his weight slightly forward. The hip turn in the shots leaves the fighter with his weight too far forward to really explode into a takedown. That is why Evans was throwing slapping arm punches against Silva, rather than the bombs he launched against Liddell and Griffin. He wanted to make sure that he could spring forward and drive through Silva with a double-leg the minute his opponent raised his arms to defend the shots.
Evans should do the same thing against Rampage, though he should mix in bombs with the slapping shots because if Rampage gets a sense that the incoming salvos are thrown willy nilly, he will merely plant and fire monster uppercuts or quickly shift to a Thai clinch followed by knee strikes. Either one of those strikes could end the fight in the blink of an eye. By contrast, if Evans sits down on his strikes, Rampage will have no choice but to respect his speed and power, which will cause him to counter more cautiously.
Once Evans shoots in, he needs to be careful to complete the takedown or get out of Dodge quickly. Hanging out in the clinch with Rampage, which is what Evans opted to do against Silva when his takedowns weren’t successful, isn’t the best idea. Again, the howling light heavy is very adept with knee strikes. Just ask Randleman. He learned the hard way.
If Evans is able to take down Rampage, he should methodically ground and pound away, focusing more on controlling the position than exacting damage. Rampage is extremely skilled at escaping from the bottom or reversing the position, and the one thing Evans doesn’t want to experience is fighting from his back with an energized Rampage attacking from the top position. If he is able to control the position, Rampage will expend a ton of energy trying to work back to his feet because he is not a fighter who is comfortable in his guard. The former PRIDE superstar has never spent significant time fighting from that position. Thus, Evans can wear him out if he is able to maintain the top position. And I like him to win if he can take down Rampage in at least two of the three rounds and keep him on the ground for at least half of the round.
At the end of the day, this is a fight that does not seem destined to last to the final bell, unless, of course, Evans is successful with a series of takedowns. I just don’t see that happening, though. Rampage is simply too good at defending takedowns. Better wrestlers than Evans have tried and failed to put him on his back. I don’t see why that will change on Saturday night.
For my money, I think the same focused, sharp Rampage who faced and defeated Liddell, Henderson and Wanderlei Silva in the Octagon will show up on Saturday night. That Rampage might be the best light heavyweight alive. One can certainly make a persuasive argument to support that notion.
Who am I picking? Rampage by knockout. It’s written.
Quinton “Rampage” Jackson
• 31 years old
• 6-1, 205 lbs
• 73-inch reach
• 30-7 overall (12-5 PRIDE; 5-1 UFC)
• 8-2 in last 10 fights
• 5-1 in last 5 fights
• 6-4 against 7 current or former UFC/PRIDE champions
• Former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion
• 406-day reign as champion; one successful title defense
• Former Undisputed 205-lb Champion (unified UFC and PRIDE titles on September 8, 2007)
• Fight of the Night twice (UD3 over Keith Jardine on March 7, 2009; and UD5 loss to Forrest Griffin on July 4, 2008)
• Knockout of the Night twice (KO1 over Wanderlei Silva on December 27, 2008; and KO1 over Chuck Liddell on May 26, 2007)
• Current layoff of 448 days is the longest of his career (UD3 over Keith Jardine on March 7, 2009)
• Lost only career fight following a layoff of at least 300 days (UD5 loss to Forrest Griffin on July 4, 2008)
“Suga” Rashad Evans
• 30 years old
• 5-11, 205 lbs
• 74.5-inch reach
• 19-1-1 overall (9-1-1 UFC)
• 8-1-1 in last 10 fights
• 4-1 in last 5 fights
• 2-1-1 against 4 current or former UFC champions
• Former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion
• 147-day reign as champion; no successful title defenses
• Former heavyweight winner on The Ultimate Fighter
• Fight of the Night (TKO3 over Forrest Griffin on December 27, 2008)
• Knockout of the Night twice (KO2 over Chuck Liddell on September 6, 2008; and KO2 over Sean Salmon on January 25, 2007)
• Current layoff is 147 days (UD3 over Thiago Silva on January 2, 2010)
• Longest career layoff is 294 days (SD3 over Michael Bisping on November 17, 2007, until KO2 over Chuck Liddell on September 6, 2008)
• 4-0 against opponents who previously faced Keith Jardine (UD3 over Thiago Silva on January 2, 2010; TKO3 over Forrest Griffin on December 27, 2008; KO2 over Chuck Liddell on September 6, 2008; and MD3 over Stephan Bonnar on June 28, 2006). Rampage faced and defeated Jardine on March 7, 2009.