After a year of injury-related cancellations, Jon Jones and Rashad Evans will finally fight tonight at UFC 145. The two best light heavies in the world were once teammates but they now hate each other with a passion that comes only from personal betrayal. I know, I know. You hear that whenever a fight is hyped, but this time it really is true. The rift stems from a dojo backstabbing, one of the cardinal sins in MMA (more details below), and it has resulted in some nasty trash talk, most notably when Evans called Jones "a fake ass white boy." In response, Jones promised Evans during a nightclub confrontation that he would make him his "first career highlight knockout."
Pre-fight jawing is a proud and venerable tradition in combat sports. It dates back to at least the ancient Greek boxer Epeius, who boasted in The Iliad, "Anybody who fights me I'll bust him wide open and crush his bones. Better have his next of kin standing by to carry him out when I'm through."
Fans have always loved to hate this kind of over-the-top trash talk. It's a passion that American pro-wrestlers have long exploited during "worked" matches, with the "heel" inciting the crowd by insulting the "babyface," then, ideally, getting his comeuppance. "A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth," pro-wrestler Gorgeous George once told a 19-year-old Cassius Clay. "So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous."
Clay heeded that advice, became Muhammad Ali, and turned trash talk into poetry. ("Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can't hit what his eyes can't see.") But he learned the hard way that it's all fun and games until someone's feelings get genuinely hurt. His repeated taunting of Frazier as an Uncle Tom ended their friendship and led to the Thrilla in Manila, a battle so brutal it effectively ended both fighters' careers.
MMA has tried with uneven results to mix the Bushido code of Eastern martial arts with Western boxing and pro-wrestling's media savvy. Fighters are encouraged to talk shit before a match but expected to act like noble warriors when it's over. In the sport's early years, Tito Ortiz was the first to fully grasp the role of heel. After upsetting Ken Shamrock's fighter, Guy Mezger, at UFC 19, he flipped off Shamrock and put on a T-shirt that read "Guy Mezger Is My Bitch," causing Shamrock to erupt and setting the stage for a trilogy of fights that would break UFC pay-per-view records.
Fans couldn't get enough of the bad blood between the fighters. Ortiz had already beaten up a couple of Shamrock's students and gone to war with Shamrock's little brother, Frank, in an epic fight. The young lion challenges old lion narrative also produced some unintentionally hilarious confrontations, including one press conference where Shamrock told Ortiz, "I'm going to beat you into the living death."
As Ortiz's career faded, others stepped up. Nick Diaz talked trash before, during, and after fights. His nonstop mean mugging won him a legion of diehard fans. In recent years, Chael Sonnen gleefully picked up the mantle of MMA's biggest heel, unleashing a machine-gun barrage of insults at Anderson Silva, in particular, and Brazil, in general: "Greetings from Sao Paulo! I'm learning the language: breakdancing in the Special Olympics is called capoiera and cocaine is called brunch." Even after losing to Silva, Sonnen redoubled the abuse to hype a rematch: "You tell Anderson Silva I'm coming over, I'm kicking his backdoor and I'm patting his old lady on the ass and I'm telling her to make me a steak, medium-rare just how I like it."
Reportedly, Silva asked UFC executives if "Sonnen is really crazy or this is just a way to sell tickets." Their answer: "Both." The likelihood that a rematch in Brazil will be the biggest UFC event ever indicates Sonnen's carnival barker skills (and, possibly, a death wish). In private, however, other UFC fighters worry that heels like Sonnen and Diaz are rewarded for theatrics outside the cage, rather than the action inside it.
This makes Jones vs. Evans all the more interesting, because while the two are certainly aware that their beef has heightened interest in the fight—and this should be one of the better-selling PPVs this year—the very personal and raw feelings on display stand out in the history of MMA trash talk. The seeds for the bitter fruit were planted when Coach Greg Jackson convinced a reluctant Evans to accept rising star and fellow light heavyweight Jones as a new teammate by promising they'd never have to fight each other. Evans and Jones became training partners and friends. But when Jones replaced an injured Evans to challenge for the light heavyweight belt, Jones told a reporter that if UFC president Dana White forced him to, then yes, he would fight Evans. Feeling betrayed by Jones and Jackson, Evans made an emotional break with both, leaving his team and home of many years.
Fans seem uncertain about whom to root for in this Cain and Abel melodrama. Evans, who has traditionally played the swaggering heel, has spoken of the break-up with real emotional pain. Jones, the devout Christian babyface who hours before capturing the light heavyweight title chased down and subdued a robber, has come off as guilty and ashamed.
And, of course, the trash talk took on a racially charged element when Evans texted Jones to call him a "fake ass white boy." After Jones went public with the text, Evans felt the need to apologize to…white people: "I don't have a problem with white people. Some of my best friends are white." (On behalf of white people, I accept your apology.) Jones responded with his own fake-ass counterpunch: "Rashad is the one who changes up who he is. Constantly. One minute he has a do-rag on and wants to play the thug. One minute he has the suit on and wants to play the intellectual black guy."
No staged motormouthing there. This was real pain on exhibit, the wreckage of a friendship. Perhaps sensing fans' disquiet with a dispute that wasn't manufactured, Evans and Jones have recently flipped the script and played down the enmity. Evans: "I've made my peace in a lot of ways with the situation." Jones: "I think the fight will be like the last counseling session." Counseling? The cage as headshrinker's couch? If past is prologue, then this fight will likely end with the two former friends hugging it out. But just in case, they might want to take Epeius's advice and have their next of kin standing by.
[Correction: Tito Ortiz's shirt didn't say "Guy Mezger is my bitch." It said "Gay Mezger is my bitch."]
Matthew Polly is the author of American Shaolin, which documents the two years he spent learning kung fu in the Shaolin Temple in China. Polly's new book, Tapped Out, is about the two years he trained to become an MMA fighter.