ATLANTA — For two fighters that are supposedly friends turned enemies, Jon Jones and Rashad Evans didn’t show much animosity when sharing a stage Wednesday.
Maybe they were just being civil. Or maybe the stifled smiles and occasional bursts of laughter hinted at something else — maybe the two don’t really hate each other after all.
For all intents and purposes, they have to this week. The former training partners’ bitter breakup and ongoing feud is the lifeblood of UFC 145 and one of the most anticipated championship bouts in years. But for all of the hype surrounding the pair’s dislike for one another, Jones and Evans didn’t exude much hatred when faced with the task of an intimate face-to-face meeting at the UFC 145 pre-fight press conference.
At first, the question-and-answer session carried a solemn tone, with the fighters avoiding eye contact and putting on stoic faces while the other spoke. But by the end, much like a five-round title fight, their defenses had weakened and the two were letting smiles and jokes slip.
There’s no denying that there are some hard feelings between Jones and Evans. The fighters have had to rehash the story of their feud countless times the past few weeks (and a few more on Wednesday). But after talking about it so much, the two agreed that the raw feelings that were once there have subsided a little bit.
Jones called the persistent discussion “therapeutic” and said that Saturday’s main event “will be like the last counseling session.”
Evans echoed his former partner’s sentiment, hinting that their relationship might not be in the tatters that it’s made out to be.
“We’ve talked about this to death,” he said. “When you talk about something over and over, you lose a little bit of the emotion behind it … we’ve been going back and forth, saying this, saying that. It’s been a long process. We both are just tired.”
The two even went as far as to acknowledge the possibility of rekindling their friendship after UFC 145. After all, the octagon has seen many fighters put aside their differences to hug it out after a bloody battle.
“Who knows what God wants for us in the future,” Jones said. “I was watching an Ali documentary, When We Were Kings, and it was so cool to see the guys who fought each other and hated each other were able to talk about the fight and laugh and say, ‘Oh, you got me with that one!’ and ‘You hit me hard with that one.’ So who knows what God wants for us.”
At one point, Evans was asked how much Jones has learned from him outside the octagon in conducting himself as a man. Evans downplayed the question initially, but couldn’t resist a friendly jab at the end of his answer — much like the ribbing you’d expect from two former partners.
“I can’t really answer that question — but I do know he wore a suit just like mine,” said Evans with a know-it-all smile.
With the ice broken and Evans laughing, Jones also let his guard down, possibly conveying his true feelings for his former teammate.
“To clear that up,” said Jones, “I think Rashad’s swagger is through the roof. Look at the guy, that’s why I didn’t put a coat jacket on (today), I’m not going to try and compete with Rashad in dressing. He’s a wonderful dresser. He just is.”
The light-hearted affair continued when Jones, 24, compared the 32-year-old Evans to his manager, who is similar in age, but little else.
“I’m very insulted,” Evans said in mock seriousness. “You cannot physically compare me to to Malki Kawa. Don’t ever do nothing like that again. That’s just disrespectful right there.”
“My bad,” laughed Jones. “I was out of line.”
Needless to say, the press conference wasn’t exactly hostile. But that doesn’t mean either fighter will give any less on Saturday. There’s nothing fake about their desire to win. In this rare case, bragging rights might actually mean more to Jones and Evans than the championship belt itself. But just because the two desperately want to beat the other doesn’t mean they hate each other, as we might have been led to believe.
“Let’s be honest here, it’s a fight,” Evans said. “When people fight, they don’t like each other. It makes it easier for people to root for somebody. You can never divorce the entertainment side of it and you’ve got to understand this is a sport and this is entertainment.
“People are not buying this because they want to see two guys who like each other and only have nice things to say about each other. They want to see two guys who don’t like each other.”
Which is why Jones and Evans will enter the octagon as enemies Saturday. There’s no other way to bill the event.
While the tale of the Jones-Evans split has been told endlessly, the truth has always been a little too murky for anyone to decipher. Jones blames Evans, Evans blames Jones, and we’re left wondering what’s really true.
What we do know is that the pair had a falling out, leading to a feud — temporary or not — that will be resolved this weekend.
“Somewhere in the middle lies the truth,” Evans said, “And the truth doesn’t really matter.”
– Matt Dollinger