There are times when big fights are compelling strictly on a business level because of the stakes involved. Other times, for any number of reasons, things get personal. The light heavyweight title bout between Jon Jones and Rashad Evans that will cap off UFC 145 in Atlanta on Saturday is both, which explains why it’s the most highly anticipated main event in some time.
All but the most casual fans know all about the main storyline to this one. Evans (17-1-1, 12-1-1 in the UFC), a former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, was working his way back toward title contention in early 2011 with his sights set on Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Helping him prepare was Jones (15-1, 9-1 UFC), a teammate at the time at Greg Jackson’s famed Albuquerque camp.
When Evans injured his knee in training, Jones took his place. His stunningly one-sided victory over Rua at UFC 128 made him the youngest champion in the promotion’s history and accelerated his transformation from exciting prospect to superstar.
It also led to Evans leaving Jackson’s team and heading to Florida to help found the Blackzilians. Though the fighters appear to be tired of discussing it, Evans’ displeasure with Jones’ willingness to battle a camp-mate – and perhaps the arrival of Jones as a headliner – has driven a wedge between the former friends and provided plenty of fuel for talking points leading up to the bout.
Even without the falling out, this would be an intriguing match-up between two of the world’s best. Evans mixes elusiveness and power like few other fighters, and he’s stopped the likes of Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin and Tito Ortiz. He’s also a superb wrestler, able to use his grappling skills on offense and defense, and he’s been fighting nothing but top notch competition for the last five years.
Despite all of that, he’s still a definite underdog against Jones, who’s shown no obvious weaknesses during his rise to the top. An unorthodox and creative striker, his vicious elbows have claimed a number of victims (as well as causing his only loss, when he was disqualified for downward elbow strikes). The man called “Bones” packs deceptive strength onto his lanky, 6-foot-4 frame, so opponents haven’t had any success taking him to the mat either.
A successful title defense would give Jones his fourth straight victory over former belt-holders and add to his aura of invincibility. The often underestimated Evans would gain more than just revenge if he pulls off the upset, likely convincing most of his doubters that he really is one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet.
It remains to be seen if either man benefits from the extra preparation time they’ve had for each other, as the contest has been pushed back twice by injuries from UFC 133 and 140. Jones figures to have the edge in mid-fight adjustments thanks to Jackson, who changed his mind about staying out of the feud and will be in the champ’s corner.
Fans ordering UFC 145 on pay-per-view will get to see five fights before Jones and Evans finally throw down. Here’s a look at the rest of the main card:
Rory MacDonald (12-1, 3-1 UFC) vs. Che Mills (14-4, 1 NC, 1-0 UFC) – Welterweight
A young fighter out of Canada’s Tristar Gym, MacDonald could make a nice move up the ladder of the welterweight division with an impressive win. He’s already shown that he’s dangerous standing or on the ground, and his lone loss came when current interim champ Carlos Condit stopped him just seven seconds before he would have won by decision.
There isn’t as much of a book on Mills, who fought mostly in the U.K. Before jumping to the UFC from BAMMA last year. He blasted out Chris Cope in just 40 seconds at UFC 138 to make a noteworthy debut.
Mills figures to have his best chance at a victory if it stays a striking match, so don’t be surprised if MacDonald uses his excellent takedowns to take things to the mat. He’s had previous success there, and three of Mills’ four pro losses have come by way of submission.
Brendan Schaub (8-2, 4-2 UFC) vs. Ben Rothwell (31-8, 1-2 UFC) – Heavyweight
Any momentum Schaub had was brought to a screeching halt in his last outing, when Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira knocked him out in just over three minutes. The former football player and runner-up of the the heavyweight season of The Ultimate Fighter has heavy hands and isn’t afraid to let them go.
Rothwell was king of the hill in the IFL once upon a time but hasn’t found much success yet in the UFC. Big Ben’s last two years have been plagued with injuries, and he did not look his sharpest while dropping a decision to tough Mark Hunt at UFC 135.
Schaub’s big battle could be with his own confidence after his four-fight winning streak was stopped in such decisive fashion. Rothwell has a huge edge in experience and may look to take the action to the ground, where Schaub’s BJJ skills have so far been mostly hypothetical at the professional level.
Miguel Torres (40-4, 2-1 UFC) vs. Michael McDonald (14-1, 3-0 UFC) – Bantamweight
As proof of how quickly things can change in MMA, it seems like a lifetime ago that Torres was thought of as one of the top fighters in the world at any weight. In truth, it was just two and a half years ago when he lost his WEC title to Brian Bowles before losing his next fight to Joseph Benavidez and spiraling out of the pound-for-pound conversation.
He’ll hope to prove more than a gatekeeper when he faces McDonald, who is ten years his junior. Hailing from a fighting family in California, McDonald has already earned Fight of the Night and Knockout of the Night awards during his brief UFC tenure.
Torres has every tool a fighter could want, but his big gremlin has been consistency. He hasn’t been able to finish anyone since moving over from the WEC, so McDonald could find some success by getting in his face and testing his will.
Mark Hominick (20-10, 3-2 UFC) vs. Eddie Yagin (15-5-1, 0-1 UFC) – Featherweight
After giving Jose Aldo fits at UFC 129, Hominick became a dubious part of the promotion’s history by tying the record for fastest KO loss at UFC 140. Chan Sung Jung ran through him in just seven seconds, and now Hominick badly needs a win to stay relevant in the featherweight division.
Yagin could just use a win, period, as he lost his octagon debut to Junior Assuncao at UFC 135. The Filipino-American fighter will want to avoid Hominick’s lethal kickboxing game and see if he can work toward his preferred guillotine finish.
Mark Bocek (10-4, 6-4 UFC) vs. John Alessio (34-14, 0-3 UFC) – Lightweight
This all-Canadian match-up features a huge contrast in pro experiences. Bocek has fought almost his whole career in the UFC, while the well-traveled Alessio has competed in a dizzying amount of different promotions. His first appearance in the octagon came all the way back at UFC 26, when he was submitted by Pat Miletich.
Bocek is a talented submission technician himself, and he’ll almost certainly be trying to maneuver himself into position to choke his opponent out. Alessio could have the strength to fight him off since he competed mostly at welterweight until last year, and if nothing else, he gives Bocek a different look than his originally scheduled foe, Matt Wiman.