At this point, it’s one of our sport's most persistent jokes.
Five years after the UFC broadcast team prematurely bellowed the dawn of a new day in the light heavyweight division, the “Lyoto Machida Era” has become the “Rickson by armbar” of squandered potential.
When Machida meets Chris Weidman on Saturday at UFC 175, it may not only represent his last opportunity to recapture a world title but also his final chance to avoid going down as the butt of one of MMA’s cruelest memes.
In other words, this is likely Machida’s sole remaining shot at finally becoming the man he was always supposed to be.
In retrospect, it was terribly unfair—but understandable—to anoint the then 31-year-old Brazilian karate master the future of the 205-pound division when he posterized Rashad Evans at UFC 98. It had been just over two years since Chuck Liddell’s dominant run ended, and the UFC’s glamour division was desperate for a new hero.
At 15-0 and coming off stoppages in three of his last four performances, The Dragon appeared to fit the bill. He’d achieved near mythic status on Internet message boards before even arriving in the Octagon, putting together wins over UFC mainstays Stephan Bonnar, BJ Penn and Rich Franklin in Japan.
By the time he finally parted ways with legendary promoter Antonio Inoki and made his way stateside, he was a star waiting to happen.
Seven straight wins to begin his UFC career—capped by that championship victory over Evans—was all the confirmation we (and his bosses) needed. After four title changes from May 2007 to May 2009 he was the odds-on favorite to bring stability back to the grand old 205-pound ranks.
But we all know how that turned out. About as well as the time the NBA cast Penny Hardaway as its new Michael Jordan.
The Machida Era fizzled after just one successful (but iffy) title defense against Shogun Rua at UFC 104 in 2011. A knockout loss to Rua in their rematch six months later began a tumultuous period that saw Machida go 3-3 during his next six fights.
His flash-in-the-pan title reign and regression into the pack of light heavyweight also-rans hardly made him unique. A herd of other 205-pounder hopefuls—including Rua, Evans, Forrest Griffin and Quinton Jackson—all proved just as incapable of becoming the new Liddell.
Machida was no more or less a failure than any of them, and with the benefit of hindsight, we now recognize they were all just keeping the seat warm for Jon Jones, anyway.
Under different circumstances, Machida’s fumbling of the 205-pound championship might not have been seen as so debilitating. Heck, to simply be included on the honor roll of UFC titlists would be good enough for most guys. But for Machida, more was expected.
When you go ahead and name a whole era after a guy and then he botches it? That’s going to stick with him. It’s going to follow him through his entire career, unless he can somehow do it one better.
Not that the typically enigmatic fighter would ever let on that he’s worried about something as trivial as his own place in history as he prepares to face Weidman.
"I don't think about that too much," Machida told MMA Fighting.com’s Dave Doyle this week. "I don't think about the result. I think about what I have to do. Focus on the objective and go out there and win that title."
It’s been so far, so good for him at 185 pounds. The suddenly re-energized 36-year-old toppled Mark Munoz with a first-round high kick last October and breezed through a five-round unanimous decision over Gegard Mousasi in February. He was always a small-ish light heavyweight, and the cut to middleweight appears to have only helped his natural speed, elusiveness and power. When Vitor Belfort pulled out of his scheduled bout with Weidman at UFC 173, Machida was the no-brainer replacement.
It’s odd to think that after six years and one failed legacy in the UFC this fight amounts to a complete wild card for Machida. We still don’t really know how good he can be at middleweight. He’ll go off as the underdog on Saturday night, but that feels more like an educated guess than a real prediction of the outcome.
That in itself is one reason why this fight carries strong intrigue, as UFC analyst and statistician Michael Carroll noted:
The more I think about this fight, the less convinced I am either way. Weidman vs. Machida is an EXCELLENT championship fight.— Michael Carroll (@MJCflipdascript) July 1, 2014
It remains to be seen if his frustrating, hunt-and-peck striking style will be the antidote to Weidman’s straight-ahead power and wrestling. Machida could fall short, just as he did in previous title fights against Rua and later against Jones. But if he goes out and dances away Weidman’s championship—or just KOs him, a la Munoz—nobody will be that surprised.
It would make him just the third fighter in UFC history to claim a title in two different weight classes. Perhaps the most shocking thing about it, though, would be that it would grant him a bit of late-career redemption in a sport not known for getting more forgiving the older you get.
It could save him from being remembered as the guy who was supposed to be great, but then wasn’t.
This time, though, maybe we could hold off on proclaiming it the second Machida Era.
The first one just didn’t go so hot.