For all the physical gifts required to be an elite fighter, the most important prerequisite is a strong mind. Fighting, like most sports at the highest level, is as much about the mental game as the physical.
Mike Tyson won the mental game for much of his heavyweight boxing career, intimidating elite fighters and essentially winning bouts before they started. He’d turn his opponents' minds to mush.
On Saturday in the main event of UFC 145 at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Jon Jones will defend his light heavyweight title against his one-time mentor, close friend and former champion Rashad Evans. Both are ranked in the Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound Top 10, with Jones second and Evans 10th.
And both bring an impressive arsenal into the fight. Jones has unprecedented size and length for the division and phenomenal takedown defense. He's spent all of 12 seconds on his back in his UFC career. Evans has tremendous punching power and the most successful takedowns in UFC history.
What's likely to determine the outcome, though, is not their vast skills, but how they handle the pressure not only of fighting for the title, but fighting an ex-friend in what is sure to be an emotional bout.
It's always best to fight smart, not angry, and the winner likely will be the man able to remain under control. The feud began innocently enough, when Evans was injured in February 2011 while training for a title shot at UFC 128 against then-champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. Jones replaced Evans and stopped Rua in the second round to win the title.
After winning the belt, Jones told a television interviewer he would fight Evans if UFC president Dana White ordered him to do so. Evans felt betrayed and that led to an acrimonious split.
Former light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell, once the UFC's biggest star and now an executive with the company, fought Tito Ortiz in two similarly emotionally charged bouts between ex-friends, at UFC 47 in 2004 and at UFC 66 in 2006. Liddell won both fights by knockout.
He told Yahoo! Sports in a telephone interview that he believes Jones will be able to stay clearheaded and fight his fight.
Jones, 24, is arguably the most physically gifted fighter in UFC history, but if he has a shortcoming in this fight, it’s his youth. Evans is 32 and has proven he's capable of keeping his emotions in check in a volatile situation. Evans defeated Quinton "Rampage" Jackson in 2010 in a high-profile grudge match, stoically sticking to his plan.
Liddell said he expects Jones to do the same.
"I know them separately and I didn't know them together, but I'm guessing they're angry at what has happened and they're using that as motivation for the fight," Liddell said. "Jon Jones doesn't seem like an emotional fighter. He seems more calculated and follows his plan, and does what he's supposed to do to win. I don't think that will affect him in this situation."
Jones and Evans trained together at Jackson's MMA in Albuquerque, N.M., and know each other's game. To what degree, though, is the question. Both have evolved, particularly Jones, and have added new moves.
Liddell said one thing that helped him when he met Ortiz for the first time was having sparred with Ortiz for so long. Liddell said it was a major boost to his confidence when he learned from sparring that he was better than Ortiz in every facet of the game.
"He couldn't beat me at anything, and I knew that and he knew that," Liddell said. "I don't know how their training went. Some guys are better in the [training] room, some are better in the ring and some are the same at both. But the one thing that's usually true is, the guys themselves have a sense of who got the best of things from their time together, and that could be significant."
Jones has been so dominant – his 2011 might be the best single year by one fighter in UFC history – that he's beginning to develop a Tyson-esque aura of intimidation.
But UFC president Dana White pointed out that Evans has his own long track record of success.
"Jon Jones is a freak of nature in mixed martial arts," White said. "Here's a guy who got into the UFC after only a couple of years of training, came right out and started beating top guys using spinning elbows and all these other crazy moves, and he then wins the UFC title at only 23 years old. Jones is already on his way to being one of the best fighters to ever hold the UFC light heavyweight belt, which is phenomenal if you look at the killers who’ve held this belt. “But anyone who counts Rashad Evans out of this fight is out of their mind. … Evans is the most underrated fighter in the entire sport. No one can deny he is one of the best fighters, pound-for-pound in the world."
Evans won “The Ultimate Fighter” as a heavyweight and stopped champions Ortiz, Liddell and Forrest Griffin. He has also defeated top contenders such as Michael Bisping, Rampage Jackson and Phil Davis.Hall of Famer Randy Couture, a former light heavyweight title holder, said Jones is the more gifted fighter but said he doesn't count out Evans.
"Rashad has the speed and skills to win," Couture said. "Rashad has to avoid his propensity for standing up and just striking, which he has done in the past. He can't just strike with Jones; if he does, he will lose because Jon has more tools in the toolbox. Rashad has to take Jones down, not just once or twice but every single time he has any opportunity. If Jones is worried about getting taken down, that's when Rashad can put his hands on him and do some damage. But he has to keep Jon guessing if it is a takedown or a strike that's coming.
"I think Jones is super-talented and he is clearly getting better in each fight. He could turn into a very special type of champion. He poses some very unique problems in the Octagon, and so far no one has solved too many of them. I think this is a huge fight for the division. Bones Jones is very hot right now and with the personalities and the back story, it all hypes this up into a very interesting fight."
Interesting, with the winner almost certainly being the man who best keeps his wits about him when the pressure gets most intense.
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