Middleweight seems to suit Lyoto Machida.
The former light heavyweight champion’s style will probably never be for everyone, but in the wake of his victory over Gegard Mousasi on Saturday, at least we can conclusively classify his move to 185 pounds as a smashing success.
We suspected as much last October, but Machida’s three-minute, 10-second knockout of Mark Munoz in his middleweight debut was too brief to encourage sweeping pronouncements.
Now we know for sure—he should’ve been here all along.
Just ask Mousasi, who failed somewhat miserably to unravel one of MMA’s most vexing puzzles at UFC Fight Night 36, conceding a one-sided unanimous decision: 49-46, 50-45, 50-45.
Like many before him, he just couldn’t get to Machida with anything more than a few crisp punching combinations and a light helping of leg kicks. In a bout between two strikers both known to err on the side of caution, Machida showed by far the most initiative.
He sashayed easily out of the way of most of Mousasi’s attacks, countering when he needed to while showing off his full arsenal of punches, kicks, knees and elbows.
He hurt Mousasi—himself still ranked in the 205-pound top 10—with a stinging high kick in the second round and even slammed him hard to the mat with a trip takedown in the fourth.
When it was over, Mousasi came away with the same frustrated, empty-handed look we saw for so many years on the faces of The Dragon’s light heavyweight foes.
In other words, this was vintage Machida.
His unorthodox, hunt-and-peck striking style still makes him problematic for nearly any adversary. It’s just that through back-to-back wins at middleweight, the hunt has looked more purposeful and the peck more damaging.
The sample size is still admittedly small, but at 185 pounds, we've yet to see the kind of lackluster performances Machida sometimes turned in at light heavyweight, where his boundless patience and unshakable discipline occasionally came off as listless.
Middleweight Machida appears to possess a renewed sense of urgency—witness the high kicks, the takedown and submission attempts, even a flying fist to his downed opponent near the end of the fight.
Coupled with the noticeable speed and power advantages he’s enjoyed against Mousasi and Munoz, that spark (if it sticks around) will likely take him far.
I've got Lyoto Machida winning every round against Gegard Mousasi. Deserves to be No. 1 contender. Jacare right on his heels.— Brett Okamoto (@bokamotoESPN) February 16, 2014
It remains to be seen if this pair of wins is sufficient to let him coast into the next available title shot. UFC brass said on Saturday night they’ll wait to see how a scheduled UFC 173 meeting between champion Chris Weidman and current No. 1 contender Vitor Belfort plays out before making any decisions.
Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza also looked pretty good in a unanimous-decision win over Francis Carmont at Fight Night 36, and he’ll be in the mix, too.
Who should fight the Weidman-Belfort winner?
The rest of the middleweight top 10 isn’t exactly beating down the door, however, and if it comes to a pick ’em between Machida and Jacare, Machida has seniority in the UFC (if not the weight class) and a higher profile among the pay-per-view buying public.
That could make the choice pretty easy for matchmakers.
It would be inaccurate to say the move to 185 pounds has cured what ailed Machida at light heavyweight, where he lost the title and went 1-3 during 2010-11 before righting the ship.
He’s still the same guy, with the same methodology. At middleweight, though, the formula is producing more encouraging (not to mention more crowd-pleasing) results.
Already 35 years old, the only shame might be that he didn’t get there sooner.