The Half-Guarded Truth
By: Mike Coughlin
Jones v. Evans: Friends Don’t Fight Friends
Saturday night, Rashad Evans and UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, Jon Jones will fight, and in doing so remind us that the idea of Mixed Martial Arts as sport is a lie. Presenting itself as a sport, one demanding near impossible feats of athleticism, while blending a seemingly endless combination of skills, has long been the tactic of MMA in an attempt to gain legitimacy in the world. Its proponents - be they fan or owner - liken it to basketball or football, and call for MMA to regularly be featured on ESPN and in the local sports pages. But it isn’t a sport. It is a fight and fights aren’t sporting. Jones and Evans know this all too well.
The story begins with Evans the top dog at Greg Jackson’s MMA camp when a brimming-with-potential Jones arrived one day to train. The two trained with one another and developed a friendship. Evans would take Jones under his wing, teaching the MMA newcomer the tricks of the trade. They would laugh, share stories, and break bread with one another. In every sense of the word, they were friends. All the while, Evans stood atop the MMA ladder that Jones was quickly climbing. It didn’t take the world long to start whispering that a showdown was inevitable. That would never happen, the training partners said: friends don’t fight friends.
Last year, Evans was set to challenge then-champion Shogun Rua for the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship. An injury to Evans lead to his pulling out of the fight, simultaneously opening a path for Jones to climb the final rung of the ladder. Just six weeks after delivering a one-sided beating to Ryan Bader, Jones was given Evans’s title shot and easily defeated Rua, becoming the youngest champion in the history of the UFC. It was at this time that the previous whispers turned to roars. Fans began to not suggest but demand the two fight. After all, Jones was the Champion and Evans was the number one contender. It would be natural that they clash. It was then that the reality of MMA came front and center for Evans and Jones.
In an interview before his title fight, Jones said that if the UFC wanted it to happen, he would be willing to fight Evans. From Evans’s perspective this was a slap in the face. Jones was supposed to be his friend and friends don’t fight friends. Feeling betrayed, Evans left the Jackson camp, moved across the country from New Mexico to Florida, started his own personal training team, made it known that he no longer considered Jones a friend and that he would be more than happy to fight his former “protégé.” A friendship became a rivalry became a hatred.
In no other sport does this happen. Lebron James wouldn’t refuse to play basketball against Dwyane Wade; Peyton Manning wouldn’t go easy on his brother Eli if they met in the Superbowl. Friends have no problems competing against one another. Except in MMA. Because MMA isn’t a sport, it is a fight, and while it is denied by many, fighting is simply different. Fighting is visceral, raw, and ugly. There is a reason why most top MMArtists fight two or three times a year: it takes a lot out of a man, not just physically but mentally, to lock oneself in a cage and do everything possible to beat a man to the point where either he quits or an outside party has to scream, “STOP!”
Football and hockey may be rough, they may be violent in their moments, but the violence is a means to an end. From Michael Vick to Wayne Gretzky, both sports have long featured stars who succeeded at the highest levels without harming their opponent. In MMA, violence is the end itself. No one wins without doing something violent. Even a “lay and pray” victory features a fighter landing dozens of punches and elbows; a quick submission results in disfigurement if the victim doesn’t humiliate himself and beg for mercy. When a football player is knocked out, the game stops and a hush falls over crowd and player alike – something abnormal has happened and everyone wants to make sure no one is seriously hurt. In MMA, they cheer.
When Jones won the title, the fight crescendoed to a swollen-faced Rua staggering backwards, getting hit one last time, crumbling to the mat, and crying for the ref to end the night. When Jones made his most recent title defense, he choked a standing Lyoto Machida unconscious to the point where Machida’s limp body fell to the ground like a slab of nearly dead meat – because that’s what Machida was at that moment: a man whose very life was literally in the hands of Jones. When Evans won the title from Forrest Griffin in 2008, he did so by punching Griffin so hard that Griffin’s world faded to black. When he beat Chuck Liddell, he did the same thing; so too when he ended the night of Sean Salmon. These moments of brutality are the rules of MMA, not the exceptions.
To your casual sports fan, it may not make sense that friends would refuse to compete against one another. To the MMA fan who has repeated to the point of belief the mantra of MMA is sport, competing against a friend should be no big deal. However, to Evans and Jones, the truth is clear: the mere suggestion of a willingness to fight someone (let alone actually doing so) is enough to shatter a friendship.
Because friends don’t fight friends. But enemies do.
Mike Coughlin is the host of FIVE STAR RADIO. He has no friends.