When Rashad Evans last stepped inside the Octagon to fight -- on Feb. 2 at UFC 156 -- he was a shadow of himself.
There was very little head or foot movement, making him an easy target for Antonio Rogerio Nogueira’s stiff right jab. But the sluggish standup wasn’t the only hint that Evans was present in name only -- he found it difficult to get Lil Nog off his feet.
Evans registered one takedown during the 15-minute battle. Every one of his takedown attempts was telegraphed. A solid wrestler like Evans doesn’t normally broadcast when he’s about to go for a double-leg.
His performance against Nogueira was so poor that some wondered aloud whether Evans’ best days as a fighter were in the past. Based off that outing against Nogueira, the simple response is yes.
But the reality is much more complex. Evans remains as physically explosive as ever. On that level, he can still compete with the best. He’ll be the naturally faster, more athletic fighter in the cage at UFC 161 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on June 15 when he meets hard-hitting Dan Henderson. But will he be mentally and emotionally as strong as his opponent that night?
“I’m happy about this fight [against Henderson],” Evans told ESPN.com. “Having the chance to fight somebody like Dan is a big deal, especially after not having the performance I would have liked [against Nogueira].
“It’s good to get in there with somebody like Dan and answer a lot of critics and to show everybody that I am still one of the best guys in the weight class. I couldn’t find my rhythm against Nogueira; I couldn’t find my timing. It was just one of those things. It was like I was in a mental fog.”
Evans has dropped each of his past two fights. It’s the first time as a professional fighter that he’s experienced a losing skid.
Despite his recent setbacks -- to Nogueira and a highly emotional affair with light heavyweight champion Jon Jones at UFC 145 in April 2012 -- Evans isn’t one to make excuses. And he is not about to start, despite less-than-impressive showings in his past three outings -- tons of criticism was heaped on him after his win over Phil Davis in January 2012.
Evans was experiencing marriage problems before his fight against Davis. The Chicago resident and father of three spent most of 2011 in Boca Raton, Fla., training with his "Blackzilians" teammates.
It also was the year Evans severed ties with his longtime trainer, Greg Jackson, who instructs Jones. Evans was able to handle the split with Jackson; dealing with a crumbling marriage and seeing less of his children proved much more difficult. It’s a matter he still hasn’t fully come to grips with, and his performance in the cage has suffered. Evans’ divorce was finalized after his loss to Jones.
“Having a failed marriage and not being able to see your kids on a daily basis, that’s what hurts me every single day,” Evans said. “I feel like I failed in my marriage and I failed my kids by not being in their lives on a daily basis.
“It’s because they live in Chicago and in order for me to train I live in South Florida for the most part. I have a place in Chicago, but I’m rarely ever there because I’m always trying to train. It bothers me and I can’t say that it doesn’t.”
Evans has yet to come to grips with not seeing his children regularly. He knows firsthand what it’s like not having a father in the home. Being a former light heavyweight champion and top-level mixed martial artist doesn’t come close to the joy Evans gets from being a good father.
Evans enjoyed being a mixed martial artist when his children were around him often. During the past year, that enjoyment has dissipated.
“I must admit I did get to a point where I wasn’t having fun and went through the motions,” Evans said. “And that’s where I am right now.
“When I started fighting I enjoyed everything part of it: I enjoyed training so much, I enjoyed learning. But lately it had gotten to the point where it was something that I had to do, it’d become somewhat monotonous.”
Evans realizes that he won’t be able to compete at the highest level of MMA if he can’t find enjoyment in the sport. He struggles with this each day. But a two-fight skid has helped him conclude that a third loss must be avoided. It has become the source of his motivation as he prepares to face Henderson.
Evans would love to spend more time with his children, but it’s a situation he can’t reverse at this time. What he can control is providing for them financially.
A loss to Henderson, however, could seriously threaten his earning power. That realization might just be enough to shake Evans from his emotional doldrums.
“This is the type of fight that keeps you up at night, because you want to do well,” Evans said. “My back is against the wall. And this is when I perform at my best.
“In the fight business, you’re only as good as your next fight. If you lose two or three then you’re done.
“My manager Bill Robinson always says, ‘You’re either one fight away from getting a title shot and becoming champion or you’re two losses away from being cut from UFC.’”