This weekend's UFC Fight Night main event between Alexander Gustafsson and Anthony Smith will take place in Stockholm (and will be broadcast on ESPN+) -- but it's also happening in the unmistakable shadow of light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.
Both Gustafsson (18-5) and Smith (31-14) are coming off losses to Jones in championship fights. Gustafsson lost via third-round TKO at UFC 232 in December; Smith fell by unanimous decision three months later at UFC 235. Neither bout was particularly competitive.
There is no shame in losing to Jones, a two-time UFC champion with nine successful title defenses, but what's it like trying to come back from a defeat to perhaps the greatest fighter of all time? And is it hard to keep your eyes on a title when you know it's held by a man who already soundly beat you?
Former UFC champion and 2019 Hall of Fame inductee Rashad Evans knows of this experience firsthand. Evans was a teammate of Jones until 2011, then became his rival and suffered his own lopsided loss to Jones at UFC 145 in 2012. Evans was on his way to a potential rematch in 2014 before tearing his ACL.
Evans provides an inside look at what it's like to lose to Jon Jones and what the aftermath feels like, as told to ESPN's Brett Okamoto.
After I fought Jon, it was a big confidence shaker, honestly. I felt so ready going into that fight and, more importantly, I felt my skill level was the same as his. And then, when I fought him, I could feel that there was another level above me that I had to go. And that was disheartening. It really was.
Over time, it kind of drove me, where I was like, "OK, Jon is the best, and in order for me to compete at that level, I need to up my skill level to that point." But the initial hangover from it was real. And mine was bad, because it was so personal between me and Jon.
I definitely questioned if I was capable of beating him. When you realize you're not on the same skill level as someone else, that messes with you, especially if you went into the fight feeling invincible. You're kind of left at square one, like, "I can't beat Jon. He just beat me in a landslide. How am I going to raise my skills so that I'm also head and shoulders above the rest of the competition?"
"When you realize you're not on the same skill level as someone else, that messes with you, especially if you went into the fight feeling invincible." Rashad Evans
I had to get myself to a place where I was motivated to actually fight Jon again. That's the hardest part, and it's important. Right after the fight, you feel like you've climbed the mountain, dealt with the politics of it, campaigned for it -- then you get your ass whupped and you have to find a way to want to do it all over again. It took me a few fights to get back to really wanting him again. Probably not until I fought Chael Sonnen three fights later, [when] I felt I overcame that mental angle.
That first fight right after Jon [a decision loss to Antonio Rogerio Nogueira], I felt I had paralysis by analysis, because I was just thinking too much inside the cage. I had opportunities to take Lil Nog down and really work my game, but I was very apprehensive -- and that came from the fact I was hesitant after Jon.
The other challenge is that you feed off the energy of a big fight. It makes training camp easier when you have that big fight you're training for, and everyone is asking about it: "Oh, you got that big fight." It's easier to put in the extra time. When you go from that to "What does this fight even mean for your career?" it eats at you. You start to even ask yourself, "Yeah, what does this even mean?"
I would think it's easier for Alexander Gustafsson to recover and get back on the winning path, because he's already lost to Jon before [in their first meeting, in 2013]. He's already been on that wave of hearing all the hype, seeing it in there and losing. If you've been through that, you learn how to deal with it from an emotional standpoint. Anthony Smith is feeling that right now. And he was coming off a hot year. He's got to prove something now, because I know he's probably thinking to himself, "I got more than a good year in me."
"That first fight right after Jon, I felt I had paralysis by analysis, because I was just thinking too much inside the cage." Rashad Evans
It's a little bit of a consolation to know you lost to someone that everyone loses to. And it's definitely a consolation if you go the distance. I'm sure people are patting Smith on the back and saying, "At least you went the distance," and that's true. He didn't have the performance he wanted, but he did show he has heart and durability. But you've got to worry when you take a beating in a one-sided fight like that, because it does cause you to have red lights in your next fight, because you're overanalyzing. That trauma is real.