Why four black men headlining UFC 235 makes Rashad Evans emotional

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Rashad Evans (Getty Images)

Former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans had a remarkable mixed martial arts career that will certainly lead him to the UFC Hall of Fame. He has also made an impact with his actions outside the Octagon, and the fruits of his labor can be seen this weekend at UFC 235.

As Black History Month just came to a close, we’d be remiss to not mention that four black men will be in the main and co-main events of UFC 235 and fighting for world titles: Jon Jones will defend the light heavyweight title against Anthony Smith, and Tyron Woodley will attempt to retain his title against Kamaru Usman. It’s the first time that black men have been involved in title fights at the top of a UFC PPV card.

“It’s really dope, man,” Evans told Sporting News. “It’s something that I never foresaw. It’s epic to see the torch being carried.”

Although black men and women have competed in mixed martial arts, few kept the integrity of the community and projected hip-hop culture as Evans did. From his ring entrance walkouts to Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones Pt. 2” or Immortal Technique’s “The Point of No Return” to his overall swagger, Evans was somebody with whom black fighters could identify. There was never a time Evans had to put up a façade or dumb it down to sell fights. Just as quickly as he could quote Eric B & Rakim’s “I Ain’t No Joke,” he would throw on a suit and provide commentary as a UFC analyst. 

Looking at the four fighters at the top of Saturday’s card, Evans has had a direct impact on three of them: Usman, Woodley and Jones. 

Evans infamously served as Jones’ mentor during the early stages of the light heavyweight champion’s career. Their relationship would later dissolve and turn into a bitter rivalry, which culminated in Jones defeating Evans at UFC 145 in 2012. Evans has also been friends with Woodley over the years and has been working with his opponent, Usman, for the past several years.

To see it all come together like this is a dream come true for a fighter who was in the minority when he made his UFC debut as part of “The Ultimate Fighter’s” second season in 2005.

“When I first got into this sport there was not a lot of us at all,” Evans said, “so whenever I had to do my thing, I had to represent for my people. I knew I could either put us up or down, but I had to represent, and I felt like as long I was genuine to myself, the work would show.”

Evans went on to win “TUF 2,” but he was the source of controversy when he bumped heads with Matt Hughes, who was critical of Evans showboating during his fights. The clash of cultures was a talking point on the show, but the two were able to settle their differences. 

Evans later knocked out Chuck Liddell and followed that performance by winning the UFC light heavyweight title when he stopped Forrest Griffin in the third round of their UFC 92 bout in 2008. Evans’ career was up and down after that, and he announced his retirement after losing to Anthony Smith last June. 

The 39-year-old has since served as a mentor to young black fighters who are interested in getting into the sport, and he has taken great pride in his ability to give back to the community. The man who was once the young, brash fighter is now recognized as a trendsetter and inspiration for other black fighters. And he couldn’t be more proud of his new role as the O.G.  

“I’m settling into it,” Evans said. “At first, I really didn’t know how to handle it, but it’s something I am learning to enjoy.”

When asked if being a mentor to fighters such as Jones, Woodley and Usman is on the same level as winning the light heavyweight title, Evans is candid with his answer.  

“That’s what I’m most proud of, to be honest. What this sport has done for me? It makes me emotional to just think about,” he said. “I was in a f—d-up position before I found fighting and it changed my life. I think about our people and what we go through. There’s not a lot of hope for us and it breaks my heart sometimes. If I’m able to inspire another Rashad, then I’m all about that.” 

Evans continues his work in the community as part of the Always Progress project, where he goes into inner cities to speak with children and works diligently on getting kids out of troubled environments.

“We just want to show them that life is different outside of your block and life can be different if you make it that way,” he said. “You have to give them something to shoot for.”

Mixed martial arts will always be a part of Evans’ life and Saturday night in Las Vegas will be a sort of silent recognition of all he has put into this sport. Of course, he hopes that Usman will exit the Octagon as the new welterweight champion, but he’s just happy to be a part of his journey.

“(Usman) is my work. I saw that dude and gave him an opportunity,” he said. “He’s always been a hard worker and he’s been rewarded for that. He’s been able to grow. I invested in him because I loved him as a person. I wanted to help him figure out his life. I didn’t know he was going to be what he is today. 

“When I see this, this is what it’s all about,” he added. “If I never did anything else, but help somebody live out their dream, then it is all worth it.”