Rashad Evans knows he has to get a grip on Lyoto Machida if he hopes to keep hold of his UFC light heavyweight title belt.
Trouble is, nobody in mixed martial arts has been able to keep two hands on Machida, the Japanese-Brazilian fighter with an unusual hybrid technique and a fearsome overall skill. Evans gets his chance at UFC 98 in the league's first championship match between two unbeaten fighters, but even the champion isn't sure how he'll fare against the sport's most baffling opponent.
"Shoot, I won't know how I'm going to approach this fight until probably fight day," Evans said. "It depends on how I feel when I come out. Sometimes you go out there and you see opportunities, and sometimes you don't. When you go out there and fight, if you have your mind set on just one thing, and you go out there and you don't see it, then it takes you awhile to recover. So I like to just react on my feet."
Evans (18-0-1) has built himself into one of MMA's top stars in just such an unassuming manner. During a career that includes stoppages of Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin in his last two bouts, he has rarely been favored and often been slighted, a pattern that continues Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas, where the champion is the bookmakers' underdog.
"I don't take it personal, man," Evans said. "Whether they believe I can win or don't believe I can win it, it really doesn't matter, because it's not the first time I've been the underdog going into a fight, and I haven't lost yet."
For his first fight since stopping Griffin to claim the 205-pound title last December, Evans initially was slated to fight Rampage Jackson. Evans even jumped into the octagon at UFC 96 after Jackson's win over teammate Keith Jardine to hype that looming matchup.
Injuries have postponed their meeting, so the league instead will attempt to usher another star onto its stage with the first main-event fight for Machida (14-0), who's as difficult to describe as he is to beat.
Machida, the son of a karate great, has trained or competed in jiu jitsu, muay thai and even sumo, which is part of his exceptional balance in the octagon. He's profoundly slippery, athletic and defensive-minded, although those traits sometimes don't translate into exciting MMA fights.
Yet nobody has been able to counter his strengths with power or cunning. Using his opponents' aggressiveness against them, Machida has beaten Tito Ortiz, Rich Franklin and B.J. Penn, and his first-round knockout victory over previously unbeaten Thiago Silva on Jan. 31 was the most eye-catching moment of his career.
UFC president Dana White believes Machida is growing comfortable with the challenges of fighting in his league, and that comfort will soon be reflected in his performances.
"It's part of my job to entertain the fans," Machida said through an interpreter. "In the end, it's a sport, but it's also entertainment. I'm being paid to entertain my fans, but all of the criticism goes on (helps) my training because I can hear what the people are saying and adapt my training."
The fight should be decided by Evans' ability to get a grip on Machida, who often uses a fighter's aggression and strength against him. Evans is a formidable wrestler who's probably strong enough to win a grappling match, but Machida has been almost impossible to grab for every opponent he's faced.
Most MMA fighters and observers have no strong idea what will happen in such an unpredictable matchup _ but with respected coach Greg Jackson, Evans believes they can solve perhaps the sport's most baffling opponent.
"Watching Machida's tapes, I've definitely seen enough that I can do myself in areas that fits into what I do well," Evans said. "I'm not worried about it."