mma / Columns

Return of the Dragon

October 23, 2017 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Lyoto Machida - UFC Fight Night 119 - UFC Fight Night 125

He fought like no one before him. Although he didn’t have a particularly long reach, he always preferred to fight at a long distance from his opponent. His stance was wide and southpaw, the unorthodox of the unorthodox. He timed his attacks expertly, darting in to strike and disappearing before his opponent could return fire.

We’d been led believe that karate didn’t work – at least not in this sport – a notion enforced by the few times karate stylists tried and failed to defeat Brazilian jiu-jitsu and wrestling in early modern MMA bouts. Then Lyoto Machida, a well-rounded fighter with karate making up the spine of his skill set, won the UFC light heavyweight championship before suffering a single loss on his record.

It’s been two years since Lyoto Machida has competed, having been sidelined (perhaps unfairly) by USADA. The fighter we last saw wasn’t the fighter we remember.

In 2015, he was bludgeoned and choked out by Luke Rockhold. Then he was allowed to fight again two months later, when he was simply bludgeoned by Yoel Romero. Those were career-altering results, not simply for the fact of the losses but because of the damage Machida sustained in them. Frankly, he could have used the two years off to recover as fully as possible.

Machida returns on Saturday to fight Derek Brunson in Brazil. Don’t expect to see a return to form as much as a return home after an extended absence. It will be a nice moment, if a little awkward because they changed the cabinet where they put the cups.

At 39, Machida isn’t likely to make another run at the title. His spot will be one of disruption for hopeful contenders like Brunson. Although the dragon’s fire has cooled with age, defeating Machida will still be a meaningful feather in the cap of any up-and-comer because of how different of a fighter he is and how successful he has been.

There was a sense of amazement when Machida took the light heavyweight title. Immediately before doing so, he became the first fighter to defeat impressive prospect Thiago Silva. He took the title away from the previously unbeaten Rashad Evans. Both performances were almost flawless. Better, both were violent.

Machida had received criticism for being passive. He’d hit an opponent, dart away as his opponent struck air, wait a bit, and then repeat until his 15 minutes were up. To most, he was boring.

The Silva and Evans fights were different, as each ended with brutal knockouts that signaled Machida was not just the most skilled light heavyweight in the world, he was also improving faster than the opposition.

When UFC commentator Joe Rogan declared that the Machida era had begun after Evans fell, it didn’t seem like an outlandish statement. Who could beat this guy? Rampage Jackson would have a hard time catching him. Forrest Griffin was certainly too slow. Shogun Rua was 27-years-old at the time, but in his past two fights he’d looked closer to 37.

Machida was a 4-to-1 betting favorite in his first title defense against Shogun Rua. It was supposed to be easy for Machida, but Rua returned to form at the right time and brought the right style and the right strategy to give Machida issues. Shogun attacked Machida’s legs with kicks, and mixed kicks and knees to redden Machida’s midsection. Throughout the five round fight, Rua struck Machida more times than all seven of Machida’s previous UFC opponents combined.

Although Machida won a controversial decision, it marked the unofficial end of the Machida era. Rua made the end official when he knocked Machida out in the first round of their rematch seven months later.

Machida’s title days were over, but he remained the toughest puzzle to solve in the division. After benefitting from a bad decision in the first fight with Rua, he lost one to Rampage Jackson. A few years later judges would also take a win over Phil Davis, and the title shot that may have come with it, away from Machida.

Following a stunning knockout of Randy Couture, he challenged Jon Jones for the light heavyweight championship. Machida performed well in the first round, but Jones turned the volume up to 11 in the next round and put Machida to sleep.

He knocked out Ryan Bader and Mark Munoz, and won decisions over Dan Henderson and Gegard Mousasi. The latter victory scored Machida a middleweight title shot, probably the last title fight of his career. He fought closely with Chris Weidman in one of the best fights of 2014, but fell short.

Lyoto Machida didn’t become the dominant champion he was tabbed to be. However, his ascent is one of the reasons karate is more relevant today at the highest levels of MMA than it was prior to Machida. Even after losing the championship, he was a consistently tough and complex title contender. It may be too late for Machida to make improvements to his legacy, but the one he has now is impressive as it is.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.

article topics :

Lyoto Machida, UFC, Dan Plunkett