After long absence, stakes high for Evans

During the last 14 months, Rashad Evans has become the poster child for how not to manage a career in the UFC.

As a result, when Evans meets Tito Ortiz in their makeshift main event Saturday in Philadelphia, stakes will be high and consequences magnified for the former light heavyweight champion and “Ultimate Fighter” Season 2 winner.

Not only will UFC 133 mark Evans’ first fight since he sat out more than a year waiting for a title shot that never materialized, it’ll be his first since ditching his longtime home at Greg Jackson’s gym in New Mexico and moving his training camp across the country to Imperial Athletics in Florida. How cage rust or that change of scenery might affect him is anyone’s best guess at this point.

This will also be his first bout since his very public falling out with former friend Jon Jones after Jones took the title shot that rightfully should have been Evans’ at UFC 128 and used it to capture light heavyweight gold. Since then, Evans has given every impression that the driving focus of his career is getting to Jones, getting a chance at revenge and redemption and finally getting the second championship opportunity that has thus far eluded him at such great cost.

To make it there, he needs to beat Ortiz on Saturday. In other words, this fight -- which on paper seems like it should be a walk in the park for the 3-1 favorite -- is also one he absolutely can’t afford to lose.

Evans’ image, which for whatever reason has never been stellar with MMA fans, is still straggling along after his ill-fated decision last year to bide his time while champion Mauricio Rua recovered from his umpteenth knee surgery. At first it seemed reasonable enough. Evans had duly earned No. 1 contender status with a win over rival Quinton Jackson at UFC 114, and to accept a fight in the interim felt like an unnecessary risk.

In hindsight though, maybe the greater risk was remaining idle. By waiting for Shogun, the 31-year-old Evans effectively squandered what might otherwise have been one of the most profitable years of his career and drew the ire of UFC brass who, for obvious reasons, prefer their bigger draws to keep a more active schedule. When Evans tweaked his own knee a few weeks before things were finally about to come to fruition for him at UFC 128, there was a palpable sense of self-satisfaction in the company’s decision to give his title shot to Jones.

In the wake of that incident, it’s become something of a cardinal sin inside the Zuffa empire to wait for a title shot. Anthony Pettis and Chad Mendes have since both fallen victim to what you might call The Rashad Evans Rule, each risking title shots in nontitle affairs against lesser opponents because, well, they didn’t have any other choice.

Evans won’t get that year of his career back or suddenly become a fan favorite if he beats Ortiz this weekend, but it might help take some of the current pressure off him. Certainly if a victory earns him the chance to fight Jones and regain the 205-pound title, the last 14 months won’t seem like such a failed treasure hunt.

On the other hand, a loss to Ortiz -- a guy whose career was walking dead before he stunned Ryan Bader in July one UFC event ago -- might force Evans to reflect on a year wasted and numerous bridges burned without much at all to show for it.