Enter The Dragon

Elton HobsonCorrespondent IJuly 29, 2009

I'm sitting on my couch in the small, one bedroom apartment I share with my girlfriend. She's asleep in the bedroom, her fatigue and the certainty of early morning work winning over her enthusiasm. Not me, though. It's 11:30, I’m clad in boxers and a t-shirt and I’m blinking the sleep out of my eyes. On the small screen in front of me, UFC 98 is building to its main event. Despite the fact that we're both huge fans, buying a pay-per-view such as this is not the norm for us. I convinced Michelle to go in for this with a simple promise: that I write something about the event afterwards. I guess this is me keeping my promise. I don't know why I lobbied so hard for this pay-per-view, why I put down a considerable (for a starving college student, anyways) sum for the privilege of having Zuffa's latest offering beamed to my dark living room with its lone, boxer wearing occupant. The answer, I suspect has something to do with Lyoto Machida.
Coming into the event, I wasn't Lyoto Machida fanatic by any means, but I had been given a close look at him recently, and remained strangely fascinated. Flash back to UFC 94, and I'm sitting amongst the crowd at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Like everyone else, I was there for the Georges St-Pierre- BJ Penn mega-fight, and like everyone else, I was getting antsy. Every fight that night had gone to decision (no joke, look up UFC 94 on wikipedia) and while they were certainly exciting contests we had so far been denied the satisfaction of a good finish. Amid conflicting chants of "GSP!" and "BJ PENN" that had been echoing all night, the co-main event fighters took the Octagon. American Top Team standout Thiago Silva, and Shotokan Karate enigma Lyoto Machida. Despite holding an undefeated record, Machida had acquired a reputation among some a s a boring fighter and his entrance into the Octagon seemed to foretell another decision in the works. With the main-event just around the corner, the crowd was understandably apprehensive. For my part, I was not a fan or a detractor of either fighter. Turning to my father (the benefactor of the whole trip to Vegas, in more ways then one) I shared a particular sentiment: "I don't care who wins, as long as they make a statement". Four minutes and fifty-nine seconds later, Thiago lay stretched on the mat, forever to occupy a place of honor on highlight reels. My girlfriend snapped a memorable photo of Machida astride the Octagon, arms raised in victory. The crowd roared when he asked them, in English, "Do I deserve a title shot?" Statement made. I was officially a Machida fan. I could tell my old man was impressed as well. I'd like to think, indirectly, we were both thinking back to a snowy log cabin, in the dead of the Ontario winter.
Wait. What?
Let me take another step back. Every winter when I was growing up, the whole family would head up north on weekends for skiing, tubing, snowshoeing, the whole gamut of Canadian winter stereotypes. In the era before digital TV, DVDs, and Tivo, the only option for after-ski entertainment at cabins devoid even of TV reception was VHS rentals ant the local video store. This situation gave rise to several awkward and frustrating moments in my young life, however, as my parents often disagreed on what movies were appropriate for me. All too often, I'd see the first 5 minutes of an R rated film, only to watch my Mom ruin the moment, snatching the offending video from the machine and lecturing the old man on the finer points of good taste and child rearing (I used to brag that I had seen the first 5 minutes of every R-rated movie ever made). Despite these frustrations, that video store held a special selection of tapes (no, not those ones) that would play a huge role in my life. At this mid-90s point in time, the "dark ages" of MMA in North America: bad press, and publicity about the no holds barred violence of the UFC had driven the sport of PPV and TV, into the realm of video.
This was where I first found the sport, in a collection of old UFC VHSs made available at this store. Each weekend, me and my dad would rent a different UFC event and share special father/son moments in the best way possible: while watching grown men pummel each other. The fighters and the sport itself, were very different back in that era. Before the full slate of regulations were introduced, before the presentation received its modern MTV polish, and before athletes like GSP and Anderson Silva dominated the field, the sport was a much more exotic animal. Cross training of any kind was a novelty, just coming into its own, and the fighters were unpolished, almost larger than life figures; specializing in one style or area of combat. Like a real life Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter, these athletes ran the gamut from Sumo fighters to Ninjutsu practitioners to bar room brawlers (oh how the mighty have fallen, Tank). Fighters like Royce Gracie, Don Frye, Maurice Smith, Mark Coleman and my personal childhood favorite, Frank Shamrock (oh, how the mighty have... never mind), made every contest seem so unpredictable, so larger than life, like watching a movie come to life. I fell in love with the sport. I never stopped. My mom, sadly, never came around. She only interest she has in UFC now is when the camera cuts to George Clooney or Michael Clarke Duncan in the crowd.
Of course, those wild early years gave way to the legitimate, regulated, and polished product of today, and I honestly could not be happier that the transition happened and is continuing to happen. Still, I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss those wild early years and the outlandish over the top fighters and bouts that went with it. And I can't be the only one. How else do you account for the freak factor appeal of a Brock Lesnar; a Kimbo Slice; a Hong Man Choi? There is something undeniably appealing about the freak match, the exotic fighter, the x-factor hanging over a bout where you just don't know what is going to happen.
As the main event dawned, as I sat there at the edge of my couch in that dark room, fascinated and excited all once, I felt exactly the same way.
“Aaannnd now…!” Bruce Buffer’s voice echoes in the Las Vegas arena, his introductions by now beyond familiar, one trademarked Buffer catchphrase leading into another. And the crowd eats it up, roaring in anticipation at just the right moment (“It’s…TIME!”). The walkouts were standard fare, Machida entering to a hip hop number and surprisingly loud cheers; Rashad entering to his usual unfriendly reception. So far, it’s about what you’d expect from a UFC main event, and yet this somehow feels…different. You can tell in the crowds reaction, in the nervous energy that permeates the arena and the broadcast and the commentary. It’s the genuine presence of the unknown, I realize, or the unpredictable. Rashad was a known product, for better or worse. All the fans knew him well through his exposure on the Ultimate Fighter and following his career ever since. They knew what he could do as a fighter (a considerable amount), and most had made up their minds about him already (unfortunately for Rashad).
But Machida was different. Here was the Gi wearing Karate expert, trained by his Mr. Miyagi like father his whole life, some weird hybrid between a Japanese Karate and a Brazilian vale tudo fighter who drank his own urine, did his forms and his kata’s like millions of other karate students, got in his horse stance and absolutely ran your shit over. He looked like a character in a video game, and fought like one too. He didn’t just win his fights, he made his opponents look like amateurs, over and over. To the casual fan he had shot out of nowhere, tearing through Tito Ortiz and the aforementioned Silva to get this title shot. No one really knew who he was, and what exactly he could do if pushed. What was he like off his back? What was his chin like? Could he handle the kind of pace an athlete like Rashad was sure to set?
Could a traditional karate practitioner become not just relevant, but dominant again in MMA? Or even dominant for the first time?

Lots of questions. But watching questions get answered is one of the best parts of combat sports. Always has been, and probably always will be.
Machida finds himself the solid fan favorite, I believe for the first time in his UFC tenure. The people’s fascination with him and his persona, not to mention the highlight reel finish of Thiago, had him riding a huge wave of momentum and hype. The crowd gives Rashad a fairer shake then normal, still pretty brutal. There’s a sense, though, that people will accept him as champion, as long as he can successfully defend his title. The light heavyweight division, the marquee division of the UFC, had been without a successful title defense for more then two years. Chuck Lidell had finally fallen from the upper levels of the sport following his loss to Shogun a month before, and people were waiting for the next great champion to replace him and replicate his success. Another great question, and another that hovered in the octagon between the two men, waiting to be answered, one way or the other. Rashad for his part looked off his game, lacking his usual bravado and self confidence. I laugh as I realize that Rashad is probably thinking the exact same thing as me right now: What is going to happen?

“Man I’m pumped for this fight!” Joe Rogan enthuses into the microphone. Mario Yamasaki asks both men if they are ready. And it begins.

It’s twenty seconds into the fight and Rashad has already danced a full circle around Machida, who stands solidly in the center of the cage. His lead hand is down, obviously trying to bait Machida into engaging first. Joe and Mike start talking about his “counter punching style” and I’m really hoping this isn’t all Rashad had prepared for Machida. They both continue to circle, throwing feints, trying to entice the other out of their game. It’s pure mental chess, waiting for the other man to blink first.

At the four minute mark, the crowd turns on them both and showers the cage with boos. Well, that didn’t take very long. I sometimes wonder what people buying tickets to a UFC event are really expecting. Don’t these people watch it on TV before buying a ticket to see it live? Don’t they know its not the “bloodsport” days of old, where a minute of slow action is not exactly unheard of? Yet pretty much every UFC event, thirty seconds transpire without constant offense by at least one participant and the crowd turns ugly. C’mon people. Are you not entertained? ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED!? Anyways, back to the action.

Or rather the inaction, as both men continue to feint and move, waiting for the other to commit first. They’ve almost settled into a rhythm of not fighting, hands slapping, like cheesy high-fives, every couple of seconds or so. Then Machida strikes. One moment they are looking at each other, then next Machida’s foot is in Rashad’s face and the champion is reeling backwards. Neither Forrest nor Chuck could catch Rashad as flat footed as that. The momentum builds.

They’re back to the feinting and moving, but its “The Dragon’s” game and Rashad knows it. No longer content to wait, Rashad lunges forward to strike, with Machida nowhere to be found. He fights like Liddell, with his hands in a traditional boxing or Muay Thai stance but low and wide, inviting his opponent to strike. His speed going forward or backwards is just insane. Rashad Evans is a world class athlete, fast and explosive, but its like his opponent is on normal time while he’s moving in slow motion. He looks even more contused now. Wouldn’t you be? Machida drops Evans, and the round comes to conclusion. I am so excited I want to run and wake up Michelle, even though I know that’s probably not the considerate thing to do.

Second round. Rashad is a fighter out of his element. He circles fast, looking for an opening that just isn’t there. The atmosphere in the arena has taken on an almost PRIDE like ambiance, as the crowd watches in tense, anticipatory silence. For the “Just Bleed” modern crowd of MMA goers, that’s a major accomplishment, even if the crowd is back to disappointing boos after only a minute of inaction. Rogan is talking at length about Machida’s karate background , the advantages it gives him in the ring, when suddenly Rashad drops. The punch is so fast that I don’t even see it, and neither does the crowd. There is a roar as Machida chases down Rashad, who gamely hangs on, falling all over the octagon like a marionette with a string cut. Up against the fence, Machida unleashes a barrage of punches, one after the other, a perfect economy of movement. Rashad drops to the floor, unconscious in the worst and really, the best way. The crowd is ecstatic. The hated Rashad, destroyer of Chuck, savager of Forrest Griffin, had been himself shut off in the most highlight reel fashion possible, comeuppance at its finest. But above that, a statement had been made, more definitive then any in recent UFC history. Rogan broke the silence with the call of the night. Call of the year even.

“Ladies and Gentlemen…welcome to the Machida era.”

With the fights finally over, I turn off the TV and get ready to head to bed. I have no idea how I’m going to be able to go to sleep, the excitement still present in my mind. Curiously enough, I notice my phone vibrating on the table, an incoming call, but I have a pretty good guess who it is. I answer the phone. “Hey pops, how’s it going…of course I was watching…oh I know, it was great…highlight reel unconscious! Exactly! How did he do that?” As the UFC and the sport of MMA progresses, a great many things have changed, most for the better. Its but the form of Lyoto Machida, we see that the appeal of the old school, the Gi wearing master of an exotic martial art, is among other things something that will never change. I’ll probably talk about this exact thing with my old man, the next time I see him. Probably for UFC 100.