For most of its short history, success in mixed martial arts has been predicated on a fighter's ability to harness and employ pure, unadulterated force. Though it started as an homage to the gentle art, once the meatheads of the world figured out how to counter and even execute the techniques that once made Gracie jiu-jitsu so effective, subtlety was all but dead in the Octagon.
The emerging sport was dominated by a combination of wrestling and Muay Thai techniques, moves and counters that relied on relentless aggression. This was hard-nosed, straight ahead combat. There was no room for a backward step or deviation of any kind.
Thai boxing and wrestling, in short, were what worked. Nothing else was even considered. This sport had its handful of techniques. Everything else was rejected, or worse, mocked incessantly.
Enter the dragon.
Using the Shotokan Karate his father taught him from an early age in his native Brazil, Lyoto Machida's goal was not to be hit, moving around the cage like a cat, waiting for the right time to strike. It was the polar opposite of the Muay Thai approach, a radical departure from MMA's ethos of ultra-violence.
Thai boxing was all about toughness. The training was brutal, and the fights even more so. It was the only striking style vetted and tested by a decade-plus of MMA competition. Machida's style was an aberration.
Despite being a simple and intuitive strategy, one employed by boxers for years, it wasn't supposed to work in MMA. Traditional martial arts masters had fallen short against the Gracie family in the early 1990s. That was thought, at the time, to have eliminated those arts from a serious fighter's lexicon. As I wrote in The MMA Encyclopedia, karate and other arts had met the challenge of the UFC Octagon—and they'd come up short:
The karate club might still be a good place to drop the kids off after school, let them burn off some energy and improve their fitness in an environment that emphasized focus, discipline, and self-control. For most practitioners, those have always been the real benefits of the martial arts anyway, and a good karate dojo still holds to those values. But traditional karate was thought to be incapable of turning out fighters who could compete in the full-contact free-for-all of modern mixed martial arts.
Machida made a liar out of all of us, a fool of anyone who openly mocked fighting arts that had survived for centuries. While he certainly wasn't the first prominent mixed martial artist to hold rank in a traditional karate discipline, he was the first to look like a karate fighter in the cage.
He didn't just mix an occasional technique into his Muay Thai attack like some traditional stylists. Machida moved like a karateka. He leaped in and out of range head back in an uncommonly high posture, utterly unpredictable and lethal. Machida did things we had never seen before, countering strikes better than anyone in MMA history not named Chuck Liddell and disguising his amazing foot sweeps behind straight punches.
|Thiago Silva||January 31, 2009||UFC 94||KO||Ground and Pound|
|Rashad Evans||May 23, 2009||UFC 98||KO||Punch|
|Mauricio Rua||October 24, 2009||UFC 104||Decision||Unanimous|
While it may seem like hyperbole now, Joe Rogan's proclamation that we were in the "Machida era" felt true during his short prime as a light heavyweight. From the moment he knocked Thiago Silva cold at UFC 94, something seemed special about Machida.
And though he's declined with time, there can be little doubt that his success was something more than just a fighter making good on his potential. Machida changed the way we thought about what a mixed martial arts fight could be. More than just brutality, there could be beauty too.
And there can be again.
At UFC Fight Night 30 in England Saturday, the 35-year-old Machida makes his debut in the middleweight class. Despite reaching the pinnacle of the sport at 205 pounds, no one could deny that he's spent most of his career undersized and outgunned. Finally up against like-sized opponents for the first time in his career, the potential for a return to form is very real.
Though he's gone just 4-4 since winning the light heavyweight title from Rashad Evans in 2009, Machida still has all the tools to succeed at the highest levels. When he's lost, it's been mostly in close fights. Twice decisions many thought he deserved went to a game opponent. Besides his bout with champion Jon Jones, he's never looked outclassed or out of his league.
Will Machida thrive at middleweight?
Entering the middleweight division, after years in the light heavyweight war zone, could be a sweet relief for Machida. The fighters, for the most part, aren't at the same level as those at 205, long considered the UFC's marque division. Looking at a list of the top 10 fighters at UFC.com, there isn't a single name I can't imagine Machida standing over, hands raised in triumph. That includes top-five wrestler Mark Munoz, a longtime training partner and current opponent.
If he can make a final run to greatness, it will be a wonderful thing for MMA as a sport. He's brought beauty to a brutal world, one typified by gaudy clothing and often bloodthirsty fans. His brand of stylized violence proves not all fighters are mere brutes. Machida is a true artist, an athletic intellectual in a sport that needs one hundred more of him.
Who else is ready for the Machida era—take two?