Evans-Machida will deliver

UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans isn't a popular fighter. Whenever he steps into the Octagon or his image is shown on the big screen at fights, fans in attendance serenade him with boos.

He's viewed as arrogant and disrespectful, and those who dislike Evans (13-0-1) would like nothing more than to see him beaten to a pulp in the cage.

Thus far, no one has been able to accomplish that feat.

Chuck Liddell was supposed to be the guy who finally knocked the confidence out of Evans, but he was put to sleep in two rounds. Defending champion Forrest Griffin grabbed an early lead before being victimized by an Evans right and getting pounded out in the third.

Evans' haters have been frustrated by his knack for weathering early storms and walking away victorious. Despite their ongoing frustration, the haters have found solace in knowing the light heavyweight division is stacked with fighters capable of dethroning Evans.

Those hopes were revived when former 205-pound champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson knocked out Wanderlei Silva at UFC 92 in December. Jackson, a tough-talking, aggressive power puncher, was believed to be just the guy for the job. And he was the No. 1-ranked contender.

But those expectations took a bit of a hit Saturday when Jackson struggled en route to a unanimous decision over Keith Jardine. Jackson overtrained for the fight and it showed.

It was clear he needed time to heal and fully prepare for Evans, so when word came that the title bout had been moved up -- from July 11 to May 23 -- Jackson decided yesterday to bow out. It was a wise decision.

More importantly, the decision has infused Evans' haters with a level of hope they've never experienced. Replacing Jackson at UFC 98 is the man many already consider the best light heavyweight in the world: Lyoto "The Dragon" Machida.

"I'm excited to fight Rashad; he's a very tough opponent, and this is the biggest fight of my life," Machida said. "This has been a long road, and I'm going to give my everything. … I'm fighting to become UFC light heavyweight champion."

A black belt in both Shotokan karate and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Machida possesses an unorthodox fighting style that has yet to be figured out. He is undefeated and has made winning fights look easy. Machida's victims include Rich Franklin, Stephan Bonnar, B.J. Penn, Thiago Silva and Tito Ortiz.

While Machida (14-0-0) isn't regarded as a heavy hitter, his most recent win -- a first-round knockout of Thiago Silva in January -- has raised expectations that he will not only beat Evans, but knock him out or submit him. Though he and Evans are counterpunchers, there is a good chance this fight won't go the distance.

"This is a fight that may go long, but somebody is going to get finished," Machida's manager Ed Soares told ESPN.com. "Let's say Machida is up three rounds or Rashad is up three rounds, they're not going to let it go to a decision, dude.

"Both of those guys want to win that belt. They're not going to leave it up to the judges, so one of them is going to press the pace. I don't believe this fight is going the distance. These guys want it too much."

But an action-packed fight slightly favors Evans. He is the harder puncher and has quicker hands.

Besides, it's not yet clear how well Machida takes a punch. If his chin isn't solid and Evans lands a big overhand right, Machida will get knocked out.

However, Machida has demonstrated an ability to handle aggressive fighters and has a decent punch of his own. Machida also has solid kicks and a good ground game -- he has submission skills.

He's adroit at mixing up his attack, especially when opponents come at him aggressively. Silva opted for that approach and paid a heavy price. Evans promises to avoid that mistake and many others made by Silva.

"There are a lot of things [Silva] did against Machida that I won't do," Evans told ESPN.com. "Mainly, when I'm on the ground I wouldn't be so relaxed; I won't just lay there like he did.

"He underestimated Machida's ability to close the distance and his ground and pound. There are a lot of mistakes he made that I probably won't make."

One mistake Evans has already avoided is returning to the cage too quickly. He requested additional time to heal before making his first title defense.

Going into this fight Evans feels in tip-top condition. He believes this fight couldn't have come at a better time.

"I'm ready to go physically, but more important, I'm ready mentally," Evans said. "Sometimes after a fight you kind of need a second to get that thing back that makes you want to fight in the first place.

"It's a hunger; it's like an itch that needs to be scratched. Once you get it scratched it doesn't itch for a while. That's how it is with fighting. I didn't have that itch back, but once I got that itch, now I'm ready to fight. I call it my medicine. I have to get my medicine and I'll be good.

"I already have my training partners in place for Machida; the partners who can give me the best look for Machida. We're going to put a good game plan together and stop this guy."

One thing is certain: this won't be the cat-and-mouse contest usually displayed by two counterpunchers. There are too many variables that suggest this fight will end early.

Evans-Machida has the makings of a classic. This fight won't go the distance

Franklin McNeil covers boxing and mixed martial arts for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.