Former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans was all smiles on Thursday as he enjoyed a day with the media ahead of his fight against Ryan Bader at UFC 192. But that wasn't the same fighter who sank into a deep bout of depression after two surgeries had him contemplating whether he's ever compete again.
Evans suffered a knee injury following his win over Chael Sonnen in 2013 and just when it appeared that he was ready to return to action, his knee suffered a second injury that pushed him out for most of 2015 as well.
Evans turned 36 just a few days ago and with far less time ahead of him than behind, the veteran fighter wasn't sure if he had much left in the tank when his knees started to betray him over the past two years.
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"I was definitely frustrated and depressed," Evans told FOX Sports. "I've been fighting in the UFC for 10 years now and fighting for 13, just having to say goodbye to something you've been doing so much that you've become accustomed to being a fighter. To have it be gone in the way it was gone, it wasn't like I decided to stop on my own, it was the injuries."
Injuries are just part of the sport and Evans was able to reconcile with his first knee injury as just the normal wear and tear athletes at this level will inevitably have to endure. What he wasn't ready to deal with was a second injury that pushed his return date back even further.
When that happened, Evans wasn't confident that he'd ever fight again.
"The first ACL injury, it was like 'OK, wow that hurt,'" Evans said. "And now I've got it fixed up, but then the second one ... I didn't really feel anything. It just kind of popped out and I didn't know it was my ACL until I got the MRI. It was just like I'm being taken out again. I can't really identify, I really couldn't feel it this time. It was kind of hard for me.
"I'm getting older and I didn't want to go out being injured. I wanted to go out on my own terms and fight my way out. To not be able to fight because of injures was hard for me."
Evans pushed through the pain and suffering, not to mention the mental anguish of not knowing if he would be able to fight even if he did recover from the multiple knee surgeries.
Over time, Evans was able to get his knee back to full health. As soon as he was capable of maintaining a full training schedule again there was little doubt he was going to make a return to action.
A few months later, UFC matchmaker Joe Silva not only booked him in a fight, but gave Evans the fighter most people believe should have been competing for a title shot at UFC 192 instead of a bout on the undercard.
Ryan Bader picked up four wins in a row while cracking the top five in the division for the first time in his career, and Evans couldn't think of a better way to welcome himself back to the Octagon than to beat someone considered a legitimate threat to the title.
"It's kind of crazy to be in this position," Evans said. "I say that, but I'm just so happy that I get to compete and be on the stage where I get to compete at this level. A year ago or two years ago, I didn't know this was going to happen. I didn't know if I was ever going to fight again.
"Since I started fighting in the UFC and getting my traction, I've remained relevant. I've remained at the top of the weight class and that's a huge accomplishment. It's something you can take for granted when you're in the moment, but when you have a chance to have perspective like I did being away from it, I saw what it was to be away from it, but still be very relevant."
In the weeks preceding his fight with Bader, Evans has rejoiced in preparation for the fight as well as a back-and-forth war of words with his opponent.
It's not personal as much as Evans showing that he's back and still the same fighter who won the light heavyweight title in 2008 and the division will go on notice when he steps into the Octagon on Saturday night.
"There's no better matchup for me," Evans said. "The Ryan Bader matchup is a great matchup for me because he's going to push the pace and Ryan Bader's been making some noise lately. At the same time, it's a fight that fits into my style so well. I also get to jump right back into the thick of things again, so it's one of those things for me that I'm excited about.
"This gives me a chance to prove I'm back. I was pretty much done, they were reading my eulogy as far as me being a competitor and competing again. Now here we are -- the phoenix rose from the ashes and now I get another shot to compete against the best guys in the weight class."