He sat in the corner on a hard stool, blood streaming down his face, drawing heaving breaths between sips of water. A cutman worked on a deep gash above his left eye. Lyoto Machida, former light heavyweight champion of the world, was likely down, 3-0, in rounds to the reigning middleweight champion.
Chris Weidman, the man who dethroned Machida's friend Anderson Silva (and then beat him again for good measure), was in the midst of proving doubters wrong. The doubters said Weidman beat Silva the first time because Silva was clowning around, and it was true; Silva taunted Weidman, and he paid the price dearly. The doubters said Weidman beat Silva the second time because of a freak accident, a leg break that horrified those in attendance.
Weidman had the belt, but we weren't entirely sure if he was championship material. But after three rounds of Weidman solving the Machida riddle, we were close to an answer. And the look on Machida's face between rounds revealed all.
Machida built his career on footwork and space, on lulling his opponents into making mistakes. He moves sideways and backward, waiting for his opponents to rush in or put too much weight on their lead foot; when they commit, he capitalizes. He is a supreme counterstriker. But if opponents don't commit, well, his fights can end up testing your patience. For some, Machida has developed a reputation as a boring fighter who spends entirely too much time circling and not enough time engaging in the kind of wild brawls that bring fans to their feet.
It is impossible to know what went through Machida's head as he sat on his stool. He is a smart man. He likely knew he was down three rounds, and he knew he needed a finish. He'd been in championship rounds before, and he knew he needed something special if he wanted to recapture the glory he felt back when he crushed Rashad Evans to become the light heavyweight champion.
The first Machida Era was fleeting. In less than one year, he'd defeated Evans, eked out a decision against Mauricio Rua, then lost the belt to Rua in a rematch. Losses to Rampage Jackson, Jon Jones and Phil Davis followed. Machida, once considered an unsolvable puzzle, ended up moving to middleweight to resurrect his career. He wrecked Mark Munoz and beat Gegard Mousasi by decision, and he was ready when the call came for him to replace Vitor Belfort against Weidman.
But after three rounds, it was clear Machida's usual game plan wasn't going to work. Weidman was good, perhaps even better than advertised. The champion stalked Machida around the Octagon and refused to be baited into making a mistake. He took Machida down multiple times; this is no small feat, as Machida's sumo-trained takedown defense is among the very best in the sport. He beat Machida standing, and he beat him on the ground.
And then Machida rose from his stool. The fourth round began. Machida continued circling away from Weidman, and the round looked like a carbon copy of the first three.
But then we saw something we've never seen from The Dragon. He stuffed a Weidman takedown attempt, and then he began to brawl. He landed a left hook. He pressed forward, constantly on the attack, head down and arms flailing. Instead of fighting like Lyoto Machida, he fought like Chris Leben.
Machida hurt Weidman. The crowd, perhaps sensing that Machida was staging a monumental comeback, rose to its feet. A slow din filled the arena, the sound of thousands of voices anticipating one of those magical moments that mixed martial arts sometimes delivers.
The moment never came. Referee Herb Dean raised Weidman's hand at the end of the fight; the champion had erased all doubts as to the validity of his championship reign. Machida, defeated and battered, stood forlornly in the center of the Octagon. His dream of capturing a championship in a second UFC weight class would have to wait for another day.
But even in losing, Machida prospered. For years, he'd been one of the best fighters in the UFC, but he'd never resonated with the fans. His style was effective, but it wasn't the most pleasing thing to watch. No matter how many times Machida won or how many times he made world-class fighters look like amateurs, he just could not win over the fans.
That all changed at UFC 175. He lost to Weidman, and he went home to Brazil without a UFC championship. But it is not crazy to say that Machida earned more respect from mixed martial arts fans in this losing effort than he did in all of his previous victories combined. He showed heart and determination and a willingness to go for broke when his back was against the wall.
He lost the fight, but won so much more.
"Chris Weidman is a tough opponent. He's a true champion. He deserves the title," Machida told Joe Rogan after the fight. "But I'll be back. I'll be back strong."
He certainly will.