Just over a year ago, Rashad Evans and Jon Jones were friends.
The upstate New York natives bonded and trained together at an elite mixed martial arts camp in Albuquerque, N.M. Nobody figured Jones and Evans would ever break the sport’s unwritten rule against fighting a teammate.
How these two light heavyweights ended up in the octagon at UFC 145 in Atlanta on Saturday night combines a little Greek tragedy, the dueling viewpoints of "Rashomon," and a good dose of "Warrior," last year’s MMA film about brothers who fight for a title.
"I know how he really feels," Evans said. "Jon always wanted to fight me. Jon never wanted to be teammates, or to be like brothers. Jon came on the team to learn the way to beat me, so he can fight me."
The UFC just hopes it makes for thrilling television when Jones defends his 205-pound title against the division’s former champion in the most anticipated pay-per-view bout of the spring.
"He thinks he knows everything I bring to the table, but a lot has changed since he left the gym a year ago," Jones said. "I’m a much different fighter than the one he trained with. I hope he is ready to see and feel that difference."
Jones and Evans have maintained a nonstop barrage of trash talk for months, with Evans questioning Jones’ character while Jones bemoans Evans’ immaturity. While Evans has been painted as a villain, Jones has added some intrigue to his good-guy image, which he has used to become a UFC poster boy and high-profile corporate pitchman.
Both claim the saga isn’t promotional posturing: They’ve genuinely grown to dislike each other in just over a year.
"I really want to beat Jon, but I also want to be champion again," Evans said. "It’s really hard to say for me, which one I want more. It’s kind of like a toss-up."
They are two of the UFC’s biggest stars, and the 24-year-old "Bones" Jones (15-1) is on every short list of MMA’s pound-for-pound best. He has rocketed through the sport and into popular culture since his pro debut in April 2008, with his freakish athleticism honed in respected trainer Greg Jackson’s gym in New Mexico.
The 32-year-old Evans (22-1-1) merely has been a relentless winner for nearly seven years, beating a host of former champions and holding the title belt for one fight until Lyoto Machida took it away. Evans also was on the sport’s pound-for-pound lists before a 15-month injury absence, which ended last August.
Evans was already established at Jackson’s gym when Jones joined their crew. The two light heavyweights from similar backgrounds in college wrestling got along well at first, although Evans says he already wondered why Jackson would train a fighter who might end up challenging Evans.
The trouble began in February 2011 when Evans injured his knee, forcing him to withdraw from a title fight with Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. UFC President Dana White made a surprising choice to fill Evans’ spot: Jones, who had just beaten Ryan Bader six weeks before the title shot.
Jones seized the opportunity with a third-round stoppage of Rua, becoming the youngest titleholder in UFC history. Evans didn’t lament his missed opportunity to reclaim his title, knowing he would get another — but a few weeks earlier, Jones acknowledged in an interview that he wouldn’t mind fighting Evans eventually.
Evans was infuriated. He abruptly severed ties with Jackson’s gym and opened his own camp in Miami with several Brazilian fighters, humorously calling themselves the Blackzilians.
"That struck his ego somehow," Jones said. "Now he’s challenging me for my title, and I don’t regret what I said, because I said what I would have said to his face."
Evans is equally critical of Jackson, the respected coach whose Albuquerque-based team has produced a stream of dynamic fighters and champions. Evans claims the team exists for "Greg Jackson getting the coach of the year award," with little consideration for his fighters’ futures beyond what they can do for Jackson.
An awkward meeting between Jones and Evans in a Las Vegas club several months ago further ratcheted up the tension. The fighters can’t even agree on what went on when they sat at the same table.
"I did tell Rashad that I was going to finish him, and that I was hoping that he would be my first career highlight knockout," Jones said. "And he remembers that."
Evans won the main event on the UFC’s second Fox network show in January, a month after Jones dominated Machida in his second title defense. The path was finally clear for the former teammates’ fight — and while both men want the title, both are weary of the anticipation and the still-simmering animosity behind it.
"I would like to be able to be at a UFC event and not feel awkward in the same room with Rashad," Jones said. "It would be cool to be able to be like, ‘Hey, good fight,’ and just keep it moving. We’re adults here, and it’s not like I don’t know Rashad, so we’ll be like men after the fight. We’ll be cool."