Rashad Evans

(This story appears in today’s edition of USA TODAY.)

Rashad Evans can admit it now: Before his last fight, the former UFC light heavyweight titleholder was scared.

Not scared of his opponent or fearful of being beaten up on live TV, though no one would blame Evans for being concerned about either.

Instead, it was fear of where his career might be headed after two consecutive defeats and whether his numerous critics might be on to something.

“You lose a couple fights in a row, it’ll happen,” Evans told USA TODAY Sports and MMAjunkie. “Even though you may say, ‘The hell with everybody and whatever they’ve got to say about me, I’m still the best,’ in your mind, something seeps in and you wonder, ‘What if they’re right? What if I can’t do it?’”

That’s the situation Evans was facing when he took on Dan Henderson at UFC 161 in June. Evans escaped with a split-decision victory that helped put more space between him and the dreaded three-fight losing streak that often spells doom for UFC fighters. But the fear made him too careful and conservative in the main event bout, he says.

Saturday, Evans returns to the cage to take on Chael Sonnen (29-13-1 MMA, 7-6 UFC) at UFC 167 in Las Vegas (pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET). For Evans (18-3-1 MMA, 13-3-1 UFC), it’s a chance to face his fears.

“It’s the hardest thing to do,” Evans says. “You have to confront yourself and say, ‘This is how I feel. I’m afraid. These losses and what people are saying, it’s starting to get to me.’

“But you’ve got to face it, because if you don’t, and if you try to lie to yourself and say it’s not bothering you, it’ll come out. And it will come out at the most inopportune time, when you’re not ready for it.”

The added twist is that Evans and Sonnen are friends and occasional colleagues.

Both work as on-air analysts for Fox Sports, and neither seems particularly eager to hurt the other outside of a sporting context.

“I have to forget about Chael as a friend and go out there to compete against Chael the fighter,” Evans says. “He’s a great guy, and we have a great relationship, great work chemistry. But right now, we’ve got the same ambition.”

The upside is that fighting one of the sport’s most polarizing personalities on one of the biggest fight cards of the year is a perfect opportunity for Evans to prove he’s still a light heavyweight contender.

A decade into his professional career, he finds himself dogged by criticism of his style and persistent questions about his desire.

Yet, the fight game has a short memory, not to mention a fairly simple internal logic.

“If I go out there and put enough people away, the UFC is going to be begging me to fight (UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones),” Evans says. “That’s how I want it.

“I don’t want anything given to me. I’m a taker.”

For more on UFC 167, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of the site.

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