Commentary

Enemies with benefits

Some see ruined friendships as tragic. UFC president Dana White sees gold.

Updated: August 13, 2012, 3:23 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Dana WhiteChris McPhersonWhite has reason to be excited: Ex-pals Jon Jones and Rashad Evans have trashed their one-inseparable bond for a chance to beat each other into submission on April 21.

This story appears in the Feb. 20, 2012 "Rivalry Issue" of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

RASHAD EVANS remembers the day in 2010 when Jon Jones first walked into his MMA training camp in New Mexico. Jones was gangly but promising, and Evans, the former UFC light heavyweight champion, was leery about working with a kid nearly a decade younger who was chasing the same goal he was: to become the best 205-pound fighter in the world. "But I ended up falling for him," Evans says. "Jon would run up to me and say, 'What's it like when everyone is taking your picture? What's it like when everyone wants your autograph?' I feel like I helped raise Jonny."

Jones remembers when he and Evans used to pound on each other all day and then hang out together all night. He smiles when he talks about their mutual love for family, fighting and singing R&B together. "I considered Rashad my big brother," says Jones, who at 24 is eight years younger than Evans. "Did I love him?"

Jones pauses for a moment before giving his answer: "Yeah, I loved him."


THAT WAS HOW they felt 18 months ago at a time when the two men swore they were too close to face off in a locked cage with the title on the line. Then, with a nudge from UFC president Dana White, everything began to change. Jones climbed through the light heavyweight division faster than anyone imagined to a position right behind his mentor. Evans injured his knee, losing a chance to fight against champ Mauricio "Shogun" Rua in March 2011. White replaced Evans on the card with Jones.

Still, as top contenders, both men continued to say they could never fight each other, that they were teammates, friends, brothers. Evans even insisted he'd move up or down in weight rather than fight Jones for a title.

[+] EnlargeJon Jones and Rashad Evans
Al Bello/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesWhite could be eyeing more than a million PPV buys for Evans vs. Jones, which would earn the UFC in the neighborhood of $50 million.

Yet on April 21, in what could be one of the UFC's biggest pay-per-views ever, the two will fight in the culmination of what's rapidly becoming a bitter feud -- and a Dana White masterstroke. White is as good as anybody in sports at manufacturing heat between fighters and selling PPVs. But he's also presided over sagas like Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz, where he only had to step back and let two former good friends and training partners trade enough heartfelt, ugly insults that a megafight was inevitable. As seen so often across sports, there is nothing nastier than a rivalry that ensues from a messy divorce -- be it between former friends, a mentor and a pupil or, in the case of Evans and Jones, both.

Give credit to White for orchestrating the breakup. For the past five years, he and the UFC have been plagued by half a dozen elite training groups that sprang up when the sport crash-landed in the mainstream. At the upper levels of MMA, the top fighters band together in camps reminiscent of the college wrestling teams from which many of them came. By 2010, as more and more camp teammates proclaimed they could never raise a four-ounce glove against one another, White -- and fans -- had grown frustrated. With five weight classes and around 200 total fighters on his roster at the time, the UFC prez had become increasingly hamstrung whenever two contenders went public with their we'll-never-fight pacts.

Evans and Jones were exhibit A. After Jones joined Evans at famed Team Jackson-Winkeljohn in Albuquerque, N.M., their trainer and team co-owner Greg Jackson supported their vows not to square off. Dubbed Yoda by his followers, Jackson is practically worshipped for his ability to get inside a fighter's mind. In a world built on violence, he is known for reaching a deeper, cerebral level in his methods. A large part of that is preaching brotherhood within the camp, encouraging his trainees to keep the secrets of the organization within its walls. Another part of his platform is discouraging his fighters from intracamp matchups, even on the UFC's biggest stages.

What's good for Jackson's camp, though, is bad business for White, who has always insisted that No. 1 contenders challenge champions, regardless of team affiliation. In Evans and Jones, White saw a chance to make a stand against camp culture. So he started working on both men, especially Evans, who badly wanted to retrieve the title belt he lost in a fight to Lyoto Machida in 2009. "I told Rashad, 'Those guys at camp are your friends; you like hanging out with them,'" White says. "But camp is not your family. All athletes have a very small window of opportunity to make money and achieve great things in front of millions so they're remembered when it's over. You're going to put that on a shelf because of your 'friends' and your training camp 'family'? When s-- goes wrong, do you think they're going to help you pay your bills? No."

Did I love him? Yeah, I loved him.

-- Jon Jones, referencing Rashad Evans

White warned both fighters that the day was coming when they would have no choice but to fight. Neither paid much attention, publicly reaffirming their friendship vows until Jones casually mentioned in a TV interview in March 2011 that if White ever forced him, maybe he would fight his mentor. That one "maybe" was the first landed blow at the firewall around the friendship -- and their New Mexico camp. Evans took the comment to heart. Those seeds of doubt White had planted had taken root.

Jones crushed Rua with a fury of punches and knee strikes in a third-round TKO last March. White strapped the title belt around Jones' waist and then stepped back to let a familiar face take center stage. Dressed in a designer suit, Evans entered the Octagon to a chorus of boos, shook hands with Jones and declared his intention to fight him. The pro-Jones crowd drowned out Evans whenever he spoke, and as the two men shook hands one last time, they barely looked each other in the eye. White immediately announced the two would fight for Jones' belt, and Evans said he was finished with Jackson-Winkeljohn. "I'm done," he repeated again and again. "I'm done."

Over the past year, in response to the same line of questions about friendship and betrayal, Evans' answers have slowly transformed from respectful resignation to outright indignation. He now promises a win, talks about teaching Jones a lesson and brags how he had dominated in their sparring sessions. Jones, in turn, has blasted back on Twitter, including this uppercut: "He was never my friend. He's a jealous snake." On Jan. 31, Jones panned Evans' win over previously unbeaten Phil Davis, saying, "He's coming down the other side of the hill. Even his body looked softer."

"We will share the cage," Evans says now. "And I will end this so-called rivalry just like we ended our friendship."


[+] EnlargeJon Jones grapples with Lyoto Machida
Tom Szczerbowski/US PresswireJones, the light heavyweight titleholder at just 24 years old, choked out ex-champ Lyoto Machida, then dropped him unconscious to the mat in his last fight.

THE DYAMIC OF FRIEND VS. FRIEND is certainly not unique to MMA. Even now, more than a decade into retirement, former NBA point guard Muggsy Bogues still shakes his head when he talks about some of the "crazy hurtful stuff" that Michael Jordan used to say to him on the court. The two were friends throughout college (Jordan at North Carolina, Bogues at Wake Forest), the NBA and even as co-stars of Space Jam. Bogues says Jordan would call him all week leading up to a Bulls-Hornets game. Their talks would be as friendly as always. But then tip-off arrived. "We'd get on the court and he wouldn't even look at me. If he did, it was to make fun of me."

Nothing was off-limits for Jordan. His most infamous dig came in the 1995 playoffs, when MJ backed off the 5'3" Bogues and said, "Shoot it, you f--ing midget."

But he also used more personal information, the stuff that only a close friend would know, to shake up Bogues during games. "I'd be just crushed, like, 'Dang, man, Michael and I aren't friends anymore.' They'd beat us by 30, and then the next day he'd be calling again, 'Hey, Muggsy, when we playing golf, man?' It messed me up so bad."

Even more destructive is when a relationship is altered by shifting career fortunes: one friend headed up, the other headed down. When the apprentice overtakes the master, the mental and emotional boost given to the new No. 1 is matched by the damage done to his dethroned friend.

Case in point: Jeff Gordon was NASCAR's biggest star, a seemingly unstoppable four-time Sprint Cup champion. In 2001, he handpicked an unknown former off-road racer from California to drive for his newly formed race team. Gordon's good friend Jimmie Johnson became both his teammate and employee at superpower Hendrick Motorsports. Together they worked out and partied in Manhattan, and Gordon showered Johnson with career advice. They started families around the same time, building massive homes around the corner from each other near Charlotte.

Since Johnson's arrival, however, he has won five Cups to Gordon's zero. Yes, Gordon has moved into third place on the all-time wins list. But he is left to wonder how many more checkered flags he would've grabbed had he not chosen Johnson as his understudy. They are teammates and neighbors who mostly talk only if they have to. When asked about the relationship, Gordon tightens his lips and says, "We are still friends. But I would be lying to you if I said our relationship is what it used to be. We're not doing a ton of hanging out."

Serena Williams admits the Thanksgiving dinner table hasn't been the same since she surpassed big sister Venus. Larry Holmes, who was Muhammad Ali's sparring partner for four years, says he wept after his knockout win over Ali in their 1980 WBC title bout. Their friendship never recovered. "He was so good to me, but only as long as everyone stayed where they were supposed to," Holmes says. "As long as he was up there and I was down here, as long as everything stayed in its natural order, he was all good. When that changed, it was over."

Dealing with such friend vs. friend turmoil has become something of a cottage industry for sports psychologists. "No matter how big the sport, these are relatively small communities, and friendships are inevitable," says Rob Bell, an author and sports psychology consultant. "The people who live the life that you do and participate in the same career that you do ultimately are the people who understand you the best. They know where your buttons are, your strengths and weaknesses."

Bell isn't talking about technique or skill on the playing field. He's referring to examples such as Jordan and Bogues, in which a former friend's ability to get personal can create real distractions, the ones that hurt emotionally. "The single biggest danger for any athlete is self-doubt," Bell says. "And it doesn't matter what the source of that self-doubt is. The closer you are to your opponent, the more they might be able to use that to their advantage."

At the U.S. Olympic marathon trials in January, Cindra Kamphoff was fascinated as she watched those kinds of dynamics unfold on the streets of Houston.

Kamphoff, a Minnesota State professor who specializes in sports psychology among runners, sees a surprising number of similarities between MMA and the tranquil world of track and field. Both are built around training camps, where prickliness and pecking orders lurk within every supposedly close relationship. Kamphoff has studied siblings, friends, training partners and, most recently, former teammates Amy Hastings and Desiree Davila.

Throughout their time as All-Americans at powerhouse Arizona State, Hastings was always No. 1, with Davila right behind. It was simply their accepted place in the running world.

But last April, with Hastings sitting out the Boston Marathon, Davila seized on the chance to compete without her overshadowing teammate. Davila came within two seconds of pulling off an upset win, which set the scene for a dramatic reorder of the marathon universe when they faced off in Houston. "Watching them prior to the race, they joked and said their hellos and good-lucks before the start," Kamphoff says. "Then you could see them working to disconnect from the emotion of it all."

Powered by newfound confidence, with their days of wearing the same ASU uniform three years in the rearview mirror, Davila finished in second place, 17 seconds behind winner Shalane Flanagan, to make the U.S. Olympic team for London; Hastings, one of the prerace favorites, placed fourth, one spot away from qualifying her for the Games. At the news conference afterward, Davila sat beside Hastings and at one point shot her ex-teammate a sympathetic "I'm sorry" look as she told the media, "You have to break people like Amy, unfortunately."

That's what athletes call a game face, Kamphoff says. Adds Bell: "You can't look over there and see your friend. You can't see all your backstory and times together. You see an opponent."

Bell and Kamphoff sound a lot like Dana White. Of course, none of them will feel the reality of an imploded friendship in the Atlanta cage on April 21. That space is reserved for Evans and Jones. The thoughts, conflicts and strategies that are turning over in their heads will be known only to them. But it is highly doubtful that as the door closes behind them they will be thinking about larger statements on the future of the UFC, the benefits of breaking up camp "families" or the sports psychology dissertations that their matchup might inspire one day.

"It's easy to assume that I might overthink this," Jones says. "I won't. And I know Rashad well enough to know he won't either. Once we're in there together, the goal is to make him submit. It's pretty simple."

Funny, it doesn't seem simple at all.

Ryan McGee is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.

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