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Lyoto Machida: The UFC Rise and Fall of the Dragon

A long time ago Eric approached me with the idea of writing a blog about “The decline of Lyoto Machida.” I was instantly intrigued, but thought that we might be of two different minds on the subject. With his recent victory over Ryan Bader and his upcoming title shot, I thought it might be worthy of discussion.

My original idea was to talk about what happened to the Era of the Dragon reigning with terror over the UFC’s Light Heavyweight division. Many people were so drawn in by his style and his seeming invincibility that he was heralded as an undefeatable champion after signature wins over Thiago Silva and Rashad Evans. Both wins were massive for Machida. They were both nasty knockouts over top competitors, and the second one over Evans actually earned him the UFC Light Heavyweight title. What has happened since? He’s gone 3-3, earning a close decision over Mauricio Rua, before dropping the title to him in the rematch and getting knocked out cold for his trouble. He also dropped a controversial decision to Rampage Jackson and was choked out cold by newly minted undefeatable champion Jon “Bones” Jones. The wins were far less impressive, the previously noted close decision victory of Shogun, a highlight knockout over the aging and retiring Randy Couture at UFC 129 and the recent victory this weekend over Ryan Bader.

However, what started with a mere look into what’s happened to the Era of the Dragon, I decided to watch every single one of The Dragon’s UFC bouts thus far. What will follow is going to be a breakdown of each fight, some thoughts on the outcomes and general musings about what kind of impact it’s had on his career. Obviously, most of you will be more concerned about his more recent bouts, so I will focus much of my effort on his most recent events, but bear with me through the whole thing. I’ll also be offering a bit of technical insight into Machida’s style and it will be one of the focal points, as we take a look at how The Dragon has evolved as a fighter inside the UFC’s octagon.

UFC 67: All or Nothing (February 3, 2007) – Lyoto Machida defeats Sam Hoger via Unanimous Decision

This is Lyoto’s UFC debut fight. It’s extremely difficult to find footage of this bout as it took place on the Preliminary portion of the card. However, this was the first introduction for most people to the style of Lyoto Machida. He plays his usual style to a tee here. He looks unquestionably nervous at first, but settles in as the bout wears on. The main story of this entire bout is the lazy and sloppy striking of Hoger and how much Machida makes him pay for it. He nearly finished Hoger with an impressive couple of knees from the clinch, but Hoger survived to the final bell. Basically, not much to glean from this fight besides it being the novelty of Machida’s first bout in the UFC.

UFC 70:  Nations Collide (April 21, 2007) – Lyoto Machida defeats David Heath via Unanimous Decision

This is actually somewhat notable because Machida was originally scheduled to take on Forrest Griffin at this card, which would have been a significant step up in competition immediately, and might have actually launched his career a little sooner. Instead Griffin got a nasty staph infection and was replaced by Heath. The fight was rather un-interesting until the last round of the bout. Knowing he was down two rounds to none, Heath threw caution to the win and charged Machida and he paid dearly for it. Machida nailed some knees in the clinch and pounced on his hurt opponent, but couldn’t earn a finish. This bout was actually removed from the Spike-TV Tape-Delayed broadcast, because it was deemed too boring, and was yet another blow in Machida’s introduction to US fans.

UFC 76: Knockout (September 22, 2007) – Lyoto Machida defeats Kazuhiro Nakamura via Unanimous Decision

This was considered a bit of a step-down for Machida as he was coming off of a dominant win over the previously undefeated David Heath, but Nakamura was a talented Japanese fighter with big fight experience. Machida came out noticeable more aggressive in the first round, going after the Japanese judoka. Machida actually showed off how dangerous his grappling was in this bout as he handled the black belt level Judoka on the mat with ease. This bout was featured on the Main Card and was probably the first real introduction that fans had to Machida, if they had not seen him fight live.

UFC 79: Nemesis (December 29, 2007) – Lyoto Machida defeats Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou via Submission

Sokoudjou entered the UFC with a whirlwind of hype. He was coming off of massive knockout upsets over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Ricardo Arona, both in Pride and besting both men in under two minutes. Machida absolutely dominated Sokoudjou, showing some slick striking and then once again showing his impressive grappling skills. This also marks Machida’s first finish in the UFC and was extremely impressive as he submitted another top-level Judo fighter in the second round via Arm Triangle Choke.

UFC 84: Ill Will (May 24, 2008) – Lyoto Machida defeats Tito Ortiz via Unanimous Decision

Widely considered to be Machida’s toughest test to date, Ortiz was definitely the biggest name that The Dragon had ever faced. It was also Machida’s first bout against a wrestler and many wondered how he would fare. The bout was about as one-sided as it gets, with Ortiz’s only real offense being a Hail-Mary triangle choke at the end of the third round that stunned Machida. This is one of the most important bouts in Machida’s career as it really began the Era of the Dragon and made people realize just how impressive his ‘elusive’ style was. Ortiz was the biggest name he’s faced to date and Machida walked through him. His wide karate stance allowed him to shrug off nearly every takedown attempt that Ortiz threw at him, and we continued to see just how effective Machida is at fighting at a distance.

UFC 94: St. Pierre vs. Penn2 (January 31, 2009) – Lyoto Machida defeats Thiago Silva via KO

The true arrival of the Era of the Dragon. Machida took on the then-undefeated Brazilian Thiago Silva. Before the fight Machida had talked about training strength and conditioning for the first time in his career and using weight training in his pre-fight regimen and the results speak for themselves. Machida used the same countering and elusive style that he had in the past, but against a significantly more aggressive opponent. Silva constantly moved forward, but was always met with punishment for his mistakes. After scoring two knockdowns in the first round, there was only five seconds remaining in the round when Silva shot for a takedown out of desperation. Machida was able to stuff the shot and trip Silva to his back, before landing a huge right hand from standing position that knocked Silva out cold and announced to the world that Machida could put on exciting performances. The win is also notable as it earned Machida a UFC Light Heavyweight title shot.

UFC 98: Evans vs. Machida (May 23, 2009) – Lyoto Machida defeats Rashad Evans via KO

This is quite possibly the masterpiece of Machida’s career to date. Evans was by far the most decorated wrestler that Machida had ever faced and was a talented and speedy striker in his own right. Many fans wondered what would happen when Machida faced someone who wasn’t afraid to trade leather with him but could also take him down if needed.  The results speak for themselves, as Machida fought a perfect fight. He allowed Evans to basically beat himself. Machida out-landed Evans in Significant Strikes 28-4.

I’ll dive into a bit of technical analysis for this bout, as it really is one of the best examples of why Machida’s style causes so many fighters fits. Machida traditionally fights from the Southpaw stance, Evans fights from an Orthodox stance, this allowed Machida to keep a lot of distance between the two men at all times. What this also does is allows Machida tons of time to react to any potential takedown attempts by Evans, although he really doesn’t attempt any in this bout. Re-watch the fight and notice the distance between the back legs of both fighters, it’s an integral part of Machida’s fight strategy.

This is also notable for Greg Jackson’s game plan of back-pedaling vs. Machida = win strategy. Machida is by nature a counter-striker and Jackson and company thought that by engaging less against Machida they would be able to turn the tide in their favor. Instead what they got was Evans not engaging actively and Machida being able to land shots un-punished leading to the worst beat down of Evans’ career.

UFC 104: Machida vs. Shogun (October 24, 2009) – Lyoto Machida defeats Mauricio Rua via Unanimous Decision

This was an extremely close and highly controversial decision. It was also a highly entertaining bout between two of the best in the sport. Machida won the bout 48-47 on all three judge’s cards. Machida was able to win the first few rounds, while Shogun was able to capitalize on his stronger cardio and outwork Machida in the final rounds. This bout was highly controversial and many fans though that Shogun should have won the fight. I actually scored the bout for Machida, 48-47 with Machida winning the first three rounds and Shogun the final two. For those who disagree or are hating on that, re-watch the fight with no Commentary and you may see the fight more objectively. The other area of controversy is that Fight Metric had Shogun out-landing Machida in every round.

Let’s talk about some of the things that Shogun did to solve the puzzle that is Machida. First of all, Shogun was far more aggressive than really any of his previous opponents have been. Shogun has an absolutely insane chin, which allows him to be a bit more reckless than most opponents are able to against Machida. In rounds where neither fighter lands any significant offense the fighter moving forward is often rewarded for being the aggressor, Rua took advantage of this. Shogun was also willing to fight from the clinch and work for takedowns to score points. While Machida rarely shoots for traditional takedowns, he does at times look for trips and takedowns from the clinch.

One thing that also led to Machida struggling in this bout is that Shogun looked incredibly quick. Machida’s game relies heavily on timing and being quicker to the punch than his opponent. In fact this is an important part of the karate style of fighting. The basic idea of karate is to react at the same time as your opponent and land before he does. Shogun entered this bout in significantly better physical shape than his previous UFC bouts and it showed, as Machida looked surprised when dealing with the quickness of Shogun. However, he was able to stay composed and was able to control the range of the fight throughout the first rounds of the bout.

UFC 113: Machida vs. Shogun 2 (May 8, 2010) – Mauricio Rua defeats Lyoto Machida via Knockout

Rua basically goes with the same strategy as he did in the first bout, constantly moving forward with kicks. It’s in this bout that Shogun exposes what is quite possibly Machida’s biggest weakness and that is basically his refusal to keep his hands up and protect his own chin. As men more intelligent than I am have pointed out in the past, this is a direct result of his karate background. In point-contact karate fighters score points when they strike and then return their hands to their waist position, which explains why Machida does it frequently.

After a back and forth first few minutes, which featured a nice takedown by Machida and an excellent sweep and return to feet for Shogun, Machida forgets that he is best fighting at range and gets in close with Shogun. Instead of covering up in close, Machida tries to brawl with one of the best wild punchers in the game. After throwing a knee, Machida moves out with his hands down and allows Shogun to tag him with a massive overhand right hook.

It’s hard to glean anything significant from this bout, except for the major mistake Machida constantly makes. Keeping his hands down as he moves out. The other thing that can be gleaned from this pair of fights with Shogun is that crowding Machida is an effective strategy if you’re willing to stick to it and constantly pressure Machida. Getting in close and not being active is a sure-fire way to get pummeled, but if you can focus on keeping him busy, crowding him in close can certainly be effective.

Despite Shogun’s success against Machida in their pair of bouts. A close loss, which many felt he won and a decisive knockout victory, I would heavily favor Machida in a rematch, especially after seeing their performances at UFC on Fox on Saturday night. Shogun looked slow and sloppy in their bout, while Machida looked razor sharp and focused.

UFC 123: Rampage vs. Machida (November 20, 2010) – Quinton Jackson defeats Lyoto Machida via Split Decision

The end of an era? Many people consider this to be the spot where The Era of the Dragon died, however, it’s tough to say that in a bout that was so close and so controversial. Basically, the scoring in this bout came down to the first round, as Jackson cleanly won the second and Machida decisively won the third. In my opinion this one went the wrong way, but the first round was action light so it’s forgivable. In the first round Machida definitely looks slightly gun-shy and tentative, and doesn’t want anything to do with the power punches of Rampage.

In the second round Rampage once again calms out stalking Machida. Jackson works the bout to the cage and uses his significant size and strength advantage to control the bout against the fence. This is seen by some as another weakness of Machida, as he is small for a Light Heavyweight, cuts little weight to make 205 pounds and is physically unassuming compared to most of the much larger men who fight at 205. In the third round Machida takes over. After a flurry of punches from both men, Machida works the bout to the mat and controls Jackson, nearly securing an arm bar submission and working from mount for much of the round. After the bout even Rampage admits that he thought he lost the bout.

UFC 129: St. Pierre vs. Shields (April 30, 2011) – Lyoto Machida defeats Randy Couture via KO

The Return of the Dragon. After struggling through back-to-back losses Machida faced Captain America himself. There’s not much to take from this bout as it lasted barely over a minute. Many people thought that Randy might be able to dominate the fight, by getting inside and using his dirty boxing to punish Machida. He never got the chance as Machida used a highlight reel Jumping Switch Kick to end the fight and Randy’s career. This was a huge win for Machida as it re-energized fans to see Machida fight, reminded them how dangerous he could be, and actually catapulted him into a title bout against Jon Jones.

UFC 140: Jones vs. Machida (December 10, 2011) – Jon Jones defeats Lyoto Machida via Submission

In Jones, Machida fought a fighter like none other he had ever faced. A quick and talented striker, with a massive reach and a strong wrestling base. Machida was able to find success in the first round and actually looked like a legitimate threat to Jones and won the first round on many people’s scorecards. It remains a moot point, since in the second round Jones took over the bout and worked over Machida before landing a big left hand and then choked him out cold with a standing Guillotine.

Let’s take a look at some of the things that made Jones so successful against Machida. The first is definitely range and reach. Jones has an 84-inch reach, which is insane for the 205-pound class. This huge reach allows him to fight on the outside as well as anyone. Machida does best from the outside, but he uses that by stepping in when his opponents commit and punishing them before darting back to the outside. Against Jones who has a huge reach and is an accurate striker with the ability to use leg kicks, that major strength is negated.

Another thing that Jones did well was his ability to switch stances. Like I mentioned earlier Machida is a Southpaw striker who feasts on orthodox strikers, because of the distance between the rear legs of the two fighters. When Jones turned southpaw himself, he severely closed that distance and allowed himself instead of Machida to control the distance that the fight took place at.

Jones was also able to ‘out-Dragon’ed the Dragon.’ What I mean by this is that he made excellent use of feints and fakes to counter Machida. Lyoto does some of his best work when his opponents over-commit to strikes and leave themselves open to counters. After two solid rounds of throwing leg kicks, Jones was able to fake a kick and throw a right hand that crushed Machida as he was trying to counter the kick. He caught Machida coming in wildly and that right hand was what set up the eventual submission victory.

UFC on FOX 4: Shogun vs. Vera (August 4, 2012) – Lyoto Machida defeats Ryan Bader via TKO

This one should be fresh in everyone’s minds. Machida put on a striking clinic on Saturday night, absolutely battering Ryan Bader for two rounds, before finally finishing him midway through the second round. We’ve seen the types of fighters that have the most success against Machida. Quick, accurate and talented strikers who can crowd Machida successfully and work inside. Bader is neither quick, nor accurate and besides having a powerful overhand right, is not a talented striker. Bader was unable to close the distance against Machida, and basically was made a fool of.

Throughout the first round and a half Machida controlled the distance against Bader, used leg kicks and excellent defense to control the bout and avoid taking nearly any damage. As Bader began to get more frustrated, it created more and more openings for Machida to score points. Finally midway through the second round, Bader charged forward behind a jab and a right hand. Machida is able to simply step back out of the way of the jab, before delivering the crushing right hand that ends Bader’s night instantly.

The Future…

Moving onto the future, what lies ahead for Machida is another crack at Jon Jones, should Jones get by Dan Henderson at their upcoming bout at UFC 151, which will likely be no easy task for the champ.

Machida proved that he is as dangerous as they come on Saturday night and it was somewhat of a return to form for Machida. However, we’ve always known that Bader is the exact type of fighter that The Dragon feasts on; a wrestler with sloppy footwork and unimpressive striking. The question will be how does he deal with a strong wrestler, with capable footwork and impressive game planning.

Be it Jones or Henderson, the only major differences might be a thunderous right hand, or the reach of a giant.

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