Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, June 13, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Rashad Evans clears his throat as he prepares to launch into an impression of a close friend.
It’s established whom Evans is imitating, though it doesn’t necessarily need to be. An average NFL fan could probably guess the orator of the motivational talk by the end of a couple of sentences.
“Rashad, you’ve got to get on that grind,” Evans exclaims, and it’s suddenly easy to envision a hulking 240-pound man sporting smeared eye-black and a purple jersey. “It’s not all that fancy stuff. It’s about the grind. You’ve got to do 10 sets of 25 with your lifts, get on the bike and do that bike, get on that beach and do that run.”
Evans, of course, is repeating a message relayed to him from Ray Lewis. Evans (17-3-1 MMA, 12-3-1 UFC) has gone to extraordinary lengths to get himself back in the form that once made him the light heavyweight champion ahead of Saturday’s bout against Dan Henderson (29-9 MMA, 6-3 UFC) in the main event of UFC 161.
He’s worked on his mental attitude, refined training techniques and conferred with those whose opinions he trusts. One of his confidants was the 38-year-old Baltimore Ravens linebacker who just retired after winning his second Super Bowl.
“I’ve known Ray for about two years now,” Evans said. “He doesn’t live too far from me in Boca Raton (Fla.), so we’ve become good friends. We talk all the time.”
Partly inspired by Lewis, Evans began to supplement his team workouts at the Blackzilians facility with individual training time. He’d go on long runs or hit the heavy bag in his garage repeatedly with one specific strike.
He’d be alone, other than the voices of Rick Ross or Meek Mill blasting in his headphones. Evans said he hadn’t put that much extra effort in since he was an aspiring fighter fresh out of college a decade ago.
“One thing Ray Lewis always does is make sure his head is right by doing offseason training,” Evans said. “He gets up early and gets his workouts in. Those are the things that harvest the fight inside of him. You have to do these things as an athlete to get to the next level.”
Lewis could also relate to the great deal of criticism Evans experienced in the past few months. After losing two straight fights for the first time in his career, the second a lackluster unanimous-decision as a 5-to-1 favorite against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 156, some called for Evans’ retirement.
UFC President Dana White questioned his passion, which seemed to stick. Before long, many fans had diagnosed Evans as lacking the heart to continue fighting. It enraged Evans, who mostly kept quiet but thought, “How dare they,” inside.
“It’s typical; fans only remember the last fight,” Henderson said. “It’s the way it is, but those thoughts weren’t on my mind. I thought a loss would re-motivate him and get him to train hard, be a spark lit under his butt.”
Evans said that was the exact effect of the Nogueira defeat. He wanted to do it badly enough for himself, but it helped having others instill more desire.
It helped talking to a champion from a different sport.
“He’s a huge motivator,” Evans said of Lewis.