(This story appeared in today’s edition of USA TODAY.)
Rashad Evans went to Winnipeg in search of lost swagger.
The UFC went mostly because it had never been, and probably also because it knew that brand-new Canadian markets are almost a guaranteed sellout for the world’s foremost MMA organization.
At least one of them got what they were looking for. Maybe both learned a lesson about managing expectations and meeting demand.
No one can say Evans’ trip to the great white north wasn’t a success. Evans (18-3-1 MMA, 13-3-1 UFC) squeaked by Dan Henderson (29-10 MMA, 6-4 UFC) with a split-decision victory in the main event of UFC 161.
But most important he ended a two-fight losing streak that began with his one-sided decision loss to light heavyweight champ Jon Jones more than a year ago.
“This wasn’t my best performance by far,” Evans said after edging out Henderson on the scorecards. “But it’s something to start from.”
The question is, what exactly is it the start of for the 33-year-old former champion? There’s little interest in seeing Evans in a rematch against Jones, who seems poised to reign atop the division until he loses interest or flees for heavyweight.
At the same time, the workmanlike performance against Henderson proved that Evans still is capable of knocking off other top contenders, which puts him in a familiar sort of career purgatory among ex-UFC champs.
If there’s a clear place for him going forward, it could be in exactly the type of role he served in Winnipeg. The UFC limped into Manitoba with a fight card hampered by injuries and late changes, but it still had the benefit of known attractions like Evans and Henderson to rely on.
That, combined with the pure novelty appeal of the UFC’s first trip to the province, was enough to get fight fans to come out for a sellout crowd of 14,754, according to UFC President Dana White, who claimed the organization sold an MTS Centre record of just over $3 million in tickets for what ended up being a relatively slow night dominated by decision finishes.
“Overall, I’d say it was a good night,” White told USA TODAY Sports. “Was it a record-breaking night of knockouts and finishes and excitement? No, but it was a solid card.”
And, at least for the UFC’s first foray into Winnipeg, solid was good enough. Situations like this are potential opportunities for fighters in Evans’ position. The blockbuster cards loaded with superstars and title fights may get reserved for Las Vegas holiday weekends, but as the UFC expands its reach it still needs name fighters to fill lineups and make fans feel like they’re getting their money’s worth.
If you’re a top 10 fighter who’s already had and lost his shot at glory in a division with a dominant champ, you could do worse than to serve as a main attraction in markets where the UFC brand name alone does most of the heavy lifting. It just depends on if Evans would feel satisfied with that role, especially if he does get his old confidence back.
In Canada, he seemed pleased enough with a win in any form. But as seen in the past, wins beget swagger. And swagger won’t be content to stay hidden away in Winnipeg for long.
For complete coverage of UFC 161, stay tuned to the UFC Events section of the site.