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Evans recalls long road back to Octagon

Former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans will make his first appearance in the Octagon Saturday since 2013. Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this year, Rashad Evans was so frustrated with the circumstances surrounding his health, he was willing to face one of the top fighters in his division literally on one knee.

Evans (19-3-1) returns to action this weekend in a high-profile light heavyweight fight against Ryan Bader at UFC 192 in Houston. The bout will take place on the pay-per-view portion of the card inside Toyota Center.

It will be the former champion's first appearance since a walk-in-the park TKO win against Chael Sonnen in November 2013. The 36-year-old underwent ACL surgery in early 2014 and was scheduled to return in February of this year, but his opponent, Glover Teixeira, was forced to pull out due to a knee injury of his own.

That turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Evans later revealed his body had rejected the cadaver tendon used in his initial operation. Shortly after the Teixeira fight was called off, Evans underwent a second procedure on his right knee.

Looking back on the situation now, Evans admits it would have been foolish to fight on the bad ACL -- but at the time, he was angry. If you sit on the sidelines for a year and pay your dues, you expect to fight at the end of it. After his body rejected the new tissue, Evans felt as if he had forfeited a year of his career, basically for nothing.

"It was a lot of frustration," Evans told ESPN.com. "I think that's what it was. It was me being mad and frustrated. It would not have been a smart decision to fight Glover, but I felt like I did my time, did my rehab, did what I needed to do and the knee just wouldn't go. I was like, 'You know what? I'm just going to go out and fight anyway.'

"It's not something I should be doing at my level, but at the same time, I had been out for a whole year. Not being able to compete is really hard on me."

Evans' decision to use a cadaver tendon in the first place was based on a desire to return to action as quickly as possible. According to Evans, who fights out of Boca Raton, Florida, an alternative option to use his own patellar tendon to replace the torn ACL would have been more reliable but also leave him with an additional injury to recover from.

The original ACL tear occurred shortly before Evans was scheduled to fight Daniel Cormier at UFC 170. Cormier, of course, went on to dominate late replacement Patrick Cummins and fight for the UFC title twice, winning it in May. All the while Evans has remained sidelined.

It's hard to say how different the light heavyweight division might look minus Evans' injury, but he says losing that enviable position within the division hasn't been his main concern. The hardest part about the injury has been losing the ability to compete, something he has done all his life as a professional fighter and amateur wrestler.

"To really sum it up, when you have a fight, it's such an emotional roller coaster," Evans said. "You ride this wave of excitement, doubt, fear -- all of these different emotions. And then you try to harness it and ride it, like you're a cowboy on a rodeo bull. That's the only thing I can liken this feeling to.

"That's what I missed the most. I missed the week before a fight, where I feel so alive and I'm so aware of everything I'm feeling. I've been doing this for 13 years, and this is what I've come to know as normal. When I don't have that feeling, I don't feel normal. I don't feel like myself."

At times during his absence, Evans didn't look like himself either. He packed on some weight as the injury recovered, which Bader (19-4) has picked up on and teased Evans about on social media.

Evans says his physicality is now back to where it was in late 2013 when he made quick work of Sonnen and appeared poised for another potential crack at a UFC title. He lost a deflating unanimous five-round decision to Jon Jones in April 2012 and followed that up with a lackluster performance against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. Evans admitted issues in his personal life affected his performance in the decision loss to Nogueira.

He rebounded with back-to-back wins against Dan Henderson and Sonnen, however, and despite a nearly two-year injury absence, remains the No. 6-ranked light heavyweight in the world, according to rankings from ESPN.com. Bader is ranked just ahead of Evans at No. 5.

Although the UFC hasn't officially marked the matchup as a title eliminator, the winner of this weekend's bout would be in strong position to receive the next title shot. The division remains in flux due to the legal situation of former champion Jon Jones, who was stripped of the belt earlier this year. Earlier this week, Jones pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident in Albuquerque, New Mexico and was sentenced to supervised probation.

The expectations are that Jones, who has now had to deal with multiple legal issues during his career, will return in 2016. Evans, who used to train with Jones at Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA, is hopeful Jones will return but says there's no guarantee he'll ever be the same fighter he once was.

"I feel like this is a No. 1 contender's fight," Evans said. "It all depends on how impressive the fight is though. If it's a boring fight and we just lay on each other and neither of us look like world beaters, then of course the UFC isn't going to put us in a championship fight. They want excitement. They want people to get behind this division. Since Jones has been out, it just hasn't had that same fire.

"I haven't talked to Jon, but I wish him the best. I would like to see him come back as he was, but it's one of those things -- when you have an athlete and they are used to living a certain way, that's what they're used to doing. That's their thing. When you tell them they can't do that anymore, you never know how they'll react. Case in point, Tiger Woods. He had his balance going [between his personal and professional life] and once that blew up, he wasn't the same. I hope that's not the case with Jones, but you never know."