After his victory over Rashad Evans at UFC 98 to win the light heavyweight title, Joe Rogan announced, “Welcome to the Machida Era!” It was a bold statement that suggested that 31 year old Lyoto Machida may be ready to take his place as the next dominant champion in the UFC.
As he approaches his first title defense on Saturday night against Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua, we take the opportunity to look at Machida’s undefeated 15-0 career to date and pinpoint the skills that have taken him this far, and question whether there are any weaknesses that may prove to be his downfall in the future.
Despite his well publicized Karate base, Machida possesses a multi-faceted game that has helped bring him to this point in his career. Let’s take a look at some of his key strengths.
Much of Machida’s success has been attributed to his so called ‘Elusiveness’.
From the early days of his mixed martial arts career his unique, unorthadox style was clearly evident. His southpaw stance, taken from traditional Karate, is notably different from that commonly adopted in modern MMA.
He fights from a wider than normal base and maintains an upright body position. This helps keep his head back a crucial few inches making him harder to hit than the majority of MMA practitioners who have a tendency to lean towards their front leg.
The second key component that helps explain why ‘The Dragon’ is seen to be so elusive is his keen sense of range. Rather than standing toe-to-toe with his opponent, Machida prefers to keep his distance, choosing the optimal moment to quickly close the distance and unleash an attack, before retreating back out of harms way.
The final component is his movement. He presents a constantly moving target, and when under threat shows quick footwork and lateral movement, which more often than not means that by the time his opponents have launched their attack, he is already circling out of harms way.
When you combine these three components, and you factor in Machida’s ability to read his opponents intentions, you get a fighter who is extremely difficult to hit, as is clearly illustrated by the remarkable statistic that Machida gets hit on average only once every two and a half rounds.
Despite his last two wins coming by way of knockout, Machida has not been known as a power puncher. He has no other KO’s on his record, and in his 15 fights to date, eight have went to a decision (seven of those being unanimous decisions in his favor). He has however still had a great deal of success with his hands, thanks in particular to his highly developed sense of timing.
On numerous occasions in his career to date he has caught his opponent with a lightning fast left cross that has sent them to the mat. In only the second fight of his career, back in 2003, this was evident when he faced (a pre-Ultimate Fighter Season 1) up and comer named Stephan Bonnar. Midway through the first round Machida read Bonnar’s intentions to throw a kick, and with perfect timing countered him with the aforementioned straight left, sending him sprawling backwards onto the canvas.
If you felt that scenario sounded somewhat familiar then you’d have good reason. He has landed the same carefully timed punch in later bouts, such as against Rich Franklin when they fought in Japan (Machida’s 3rd pro fight), as well as Dimitri Wanderley in Jungle Fights, Sam Hoger in Machida’s octagon debut at UFC 67 and Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou at UFC 79.
Variations of this technique also knocked down both Thiago Silva and Rashad Evans (in this case a clever combination of a left kick followed by the left cross) during their fights with Machida.
In all the examples mentioned above the punch did not deliver a knockout blow, but the speed and timing of it caught each fighter off balance, sending them to the floor dazed and confused. The regularity with which this has occurred makes a strong case for the straight left to be considered Machida’s most effective weapon.
Fast combinations are another important part of Machida’s striking arsenal. When he sees an opening he often springs forward with a flurry of punches rather than looking for a single knockout blow. The most effective instance of this to date was of course during the Rashad Evans fight. He overwhelmed the light heavyweight champion at that time with a rapid succession of straight punches which set up a final straight left which rendered Evans unconscious and delivered Machida the belt.
A less talked about weapon of the Karate stylist has been his knees, yet they too have been a significant factor in a number of his fights.
In a battle with Tito Ortiz at UFC 84 a knee to the midsection had “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” visibly wincing in pain as he crumpled to the mat. A few fights previously David Heath also found himself lying on the cage floor after taking eight unanswered knees from Machida’s Muay Thai clinch, though he somehow managed to recover. Thiago Silva also took the full brunt of a knee mid-way through the first round of his fight stiffened his legs and stopped him in his tracks allowing Machida to connect with his patented left cross which felled him.
Kicks are another regular feature of Machida’s game and they certainly pose his opponents a number of problems. He has a more diverse range of kicks than most MMA fighters thank to his Karate background. In addition to the more commonly found kicks in the sport, Machida often throws Karate based front kicks (which brought about an abrupt end to his fight with Rich Franklin), side kicks and even the occasional switch kick as seen against Tito Ortiz. The versatility of his kicks ensures that his opponents are never sure what is coming next.
Finally, a trademark technique that Machida has utilized numerous times to drop his opponents is foot sweeps. He has become particularly adept at this move and has caught out many of his opponents including Thiago Silva, Sam Hoger, Kazuhiro Nakamura and even the notoriously difficult to take down BJ Penn with it.
Despite being best known for his karate and striking prowess, Machida also possesses a solid ground game, backed up by a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. In fact, in many of his fights he has shown a willingness to take the fight to the ground and work from the top position.
In his first pro MMA bout against Japanese fighter Kengo Watanabe, Machida demonstrated this as he took the fight to the canvas within the opening minute and stayed there for much of the three rounds that followed. He is regularly seen working ground and pound from the closed guard in his fights, often ending up there after taking the fight to the ground thanks to one of the striking techniques mentioned earlier.
Like Vitor Belfort, Machida is quick to try to capitalize on a knockdown, unleashing a barrage of strikes on his opponents, though he hasn’t proven quite as devastating as his Brazilian counterpart in this regard. He does however hold a recent knockout victory over Thiago Silva that came from a single strike to his downed opponent.
Alongside this Machida has proven to be skilled at passing the guard and against fighters such as Sam Greco, Sam Hoger, Namakura and Sokoudjou he has been able to successfully secure the mount position. His effectiveness from this area however is something we will discuss later.
As far as submissions go, two of Machida’s 15 fights have ended this way with Sokoudjou in the UFC and Michael McDonald earlier in his career being defeated by arm triangle choke and forearm choke respectively.
It’s difficult to pinpoint Machida’s weaknesses with any great certainty considering he is undefeated in 15 fights and has taken perhaps the least amount of damage we’ve seen whilst never having lost so much as a round in the UFC. There are however a couple of areas that may display a potential weakness that would be worth putting to the test.
Machida does at times hold a rather low guard which leaves his head somewhat exposed. At the same time, rather than employing more traditional defense of keeping the chin tucked whilst utilizing side to side head movement, Machida tends to lean backwards to keep his head back out of range. Whilst his strategy has proven successful so far these factors suggest that if a punch does land, he runs a significant risk of being rocked or knocked out.
Since so much of his defensive style is based around movement, it also seems sensible to suggest that reducing his ability to do so by utilizing the cage could prove fruitful. This has happened before, notably in his fight with Nakamura when the Japanese fighter used the position to land a powerful elbow strike to his head. Considering how rarely Machida is hit this is by no means an insignificant moment, and could give future opponents food for thought.
Some of the potential flaws in his defense are also noticeable when he attacks. He likes to pounce quickly when he sports an opening, catching his opponents by surprise with his speed and timing, but at the same time his guard frequently dissolves whilst doing so and his chin stays high. As skilled as he is, it only takes one punch from some of the Light heavyweight divisions heavy hitters to change the course of a fight.
There are still some questions remaining about Machida’s ground game. In his career to date he hasn’t spent much time on his back and it’s certainly an avenue that fighters who face him should be looking to pursue.
Ironically current UFC lightweight champion BJ Penn has had as much success as anyone at pinning Machida to the mat. Despite being significantly lighter (weighing in at 191lbs for a bout in Japan, whilst Machida weight 220lbs), Penn had Machida contained for a significant period of the first round during their fight, though admittedly he did not to anything of great significance whilst there.
Tito Ortiz also posed a question over Machida’s top game when he managed catch the fighter in a triangle choke late in the 3rd round of their fight, but Machida somehow found a way to escape. Whether Ortiz exposed a hole in his game or whether Machida was just not expecting him to try for a submission from his back is open to debate, but it certainly was as dangerous a spot as Machida has been in during his career.
As for his own submission game, though he has a couple of wins in his career by this method, there have been a number of times when Machida has failed to finish submission attempts in his fights, and significantly has often ended up with his opponent in a dominant position as a result.
A perfect example would be in his fight against Sam Greco back in 2004. Greco was not known for his ground game, having spent the majority of his career fighting as a K1 kickboxer. Three times during the fight Machida successfully mounted his opponent. On each occasion he attempted to transition into an armbar, but in all three instances he failed to even partially lock it in. As a result he twice found himself having to fight from the bottom due to his error.
There are other examples that suggest that submissions are not his most potent weapon. Against Soukoudjou he had some difficulty sinking in an arm triangle taking three attempts at it and almost being reversed in the process. When he fought Nakamura he failed to secure a rear naked choke which allowed the Japanese fighter to escape and get back to his feet. Similarly in a bout with Vernon White he took his back and looked to be setting up a rear naked choke before being successfully reversed.
These examples suggest that his submission game may be more of a hinderance than a help. It also poses questions over how effective of an offense he could pose off his back.
Is Machida unbeatable at this stage?
No. Machida himself admitted recently that “anyone can be beat” and members of his own camp concede that he is not invincible despite his impressive record. His manager Ed Soares stated in an interview with sherdog.com earlier this week that he believed “Shogun has the tools to beat Machida.” He wasn’t making a prediction on the outcome of the fight, but he was acknowledging that victory was not a formality and defeat was a possibility to consider.
Can Machida become a dominant champion at LHW?
If he was purely a superior striker in the division then it would be less likely. He does however have well rounded skills, and that lends credibility to the suggestion that he has perhaps the best chance of anybody in the current light heavyweight division to achieve an extended run as champion.
Who poses the biggest threat to his title in the light heavyweight divison?
Anderson Silva would be the biggest threat to Machida’s belt at this moment in time. Like Machida he is a master of the stand up game with many similar skills including utilizing good movement, timing, patience and counter striking. He also is the heavier handed striker of the two and so he may the edge over Machida on the feet whilst also being able to handle himself on the ground. Whether this match-up would ever take place is open to debate however since the two are friends and have expressed no interest in fighting each other.
Heavy handed strikers like Rampage Jackson and even his current opponent Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua coul also still pose a threat to Machida if they can find a way to land a telling blow, but questions remain over whether they have the strategy and skill to solve the riddle of ‘The Dragons’ elusiveness.
Meanwhile a certain hall-of-famer by the name of Randy Couture has recently made the decision to come back down to light heavyweight. Whilst he is approaching the end of his career his mixture of wrestling, dirty boxing up against the fence and intelligent game-plans could prove to be as effective a skill-set as anybody in the division to take on the champion.
Lyoto Machida is undoubtedly one of the most unique fighters currently competing in mixed martial arts. He also now has an opportunity to become one of the most successful. He is the new poster boy for Karate gyms around the globe, but it is clear to see that there is far more to his game than just that.
The concern for “The Dragon” now must be that, with the spotlight now shone firmly upon him, his methods are subject to more intense scrutiny. Every challenger to his belt will be seeking to break down his style, and will draw up a strategy designed to test it’s potential weaknesses.
There is also an increased level of expectancy resting on his shoulders. A few fights ago he was labelled by some as a ‘boring’ fighter due to his elusive style, but now after two KO’s in a row he is being hailed as the next big thing in MMA. How he copes with this pressure, and whether he allows it to affect his natural fighting style will certainly play a factor in his future success.
How long he can maintain his unbeaten run under this spotlight remains to be seen. What we do know is that on Saturday night against former Pride champion Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua, we will get our first opportunity to assess just how long “The Machida Era” is likely to last.
Article by RossC
Pictures courtesy of sherdog.com
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