By Brett Okamoto
LAS VEGAS -- An injury to his left knee might end up forcing Rashad Evans out of more than just a title fight at UFC 128 in March -- it might end up forcing him out of the 205-pound division entirely.
Evans found out Saturday he would not be physically able to compete against light heavyweight champion Mauricio Rua on the UFC 128 card, due to a sprained ligament. The title shot will now go to Evans' teammate and close friend, Jon Jones, who defeated Ryan Bader at UFC 126 via submission.
Evans is confident that the 23-year-old Jones will claim the 205-pound title in March over Rua and that's where the predicament comes into play. The two have sworn they won't fight one another and Evans said it might be best to explore other options sooner rather than later.
"There is no doubt in my mind that [Jon Jones] is going to win," Evans told ESPN.com. "He is going to destroy Rua in the first round.
"[After that], I'm still not going to fight Jon. I will always find something to challenge myself. I will go up to heavyweight or down to middleweight. But I will not fight Jon."
The former light heavyweight champion expressed confidence he could be competitive in both weight classes. He won the second season of the "Ultimate Fighter" reality series as a heavyweight, but has never competed at middleweight.
Evans (15-1-1) hasn't fought since earning a unanimous decision win over ***** Quinton Jackson at UFC 114 in May. He was named the No. 1 contender following the win and would have fought for the title last year had Rua (19-4) not suffered a knee injury of his own.
Instead of taking a fight while Rua rehabbed his knee, Evans chose to sit out until the champ was ready. Now, Rua is ready to go March 19 and it's Evans who faces a recovery process.
UFC president Dana White was against Evans' waiting for the title shot and reiterated that Saturday, saying, "I said it's crazy waiting for Shogun [Rua]. You wait all this time and then something like this pops up. Now you're out even longer."
Evans, who lost the belt in his first title defense against Lyoto Machida at UFC 98, said he didn't regret the decision.
"I waited for awhile because you never know when you will get to fight for the belt again," Evans said. "I was close [to regaining the title.] I was right there. I had a great camp. I felt better than I'd ever felt before."
One man's loss is another's gain -- in this case, the 23-year-old Jones.
Jones was aware Evans was injured before going into his fight with Bader on Saturday, but wasn't sure it was severe enough his teammate would have to pull out of his upcoming fight. In fact, nobody knew that bit of information until Saturday afternoon, according to White. At that time, White made the decision Jones would be Evans' replacement if he got past Bader. Although UFC officials never like to predict the winner of fights, White admitted there was no backup plan had Bader pulled out the upset win.
"This thing just happened. I found out today as I was driving to the arena at 2:30 [p.m. PT]," White said. "I told Shogun, 'Listen, if this kid wins we want to put him in there.' His team accepted. I then literally walked up and told Jon in the Octagon, 'You want this fight?' That's how it was made."
Other than the bittersweet emotions of replacing a teammate, it's close to a perfect scenario for Jones (12-1).
Jon Jones: "I was getting ready to come back and be the best Shogun I could be as a training partner. I have been mimicking him in practice so I have a pretty darn good clue of what I'm getting into. I'm excited about it -- Jon Jones, on being familiar with Mauricio Rua's style
As Evans' training partner, Jones had already been working on mimicking Rua's fighting style. In doing so, Jones says he's already very familiar with Rua's strengths and weaknesses -- a big advantage given the fight is just more than one month away.
"I was getting ready to come back and be the best Shogun I could be as a training partner," Jones said. "I have been mimicking him in practice so I have a pretty darn good clue of what I'm getting into. I'm excited about it."
Rua downplayed any significance in the change of opponent, adding that Evans and Jones fight similarly.
"Jon Jones is a very good striker with Muay Thai and a wrestling base," Rua said. "To be honest with you, it's pretty much the same type of work I was doing for Rashad Evans. It doesn't change that much."
What it does potentially change is what weight division Evans competes in. Because whether others like it or not, he's not fighting Jones anytime soon -- both of them have agreed on as much.
"There was no chance I would fight Rashad Evans," Jones said. "Rashad has humbled himself so much throughout my training camp. He has been a great friend."
Brett Okamoto covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at bokamotoESPN.
ESPN.com - Jones, Evans brothers in harm vs. Rua