Former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida is back on Saturday, returning to the Octagon after an 18-month absence stemming from a failed drug test.
But for how much longer can he soldier on?
Machida isn't the UFC's karate kid anymore. The guy whose elusive, pinpoint striking will go down as the forefather to a generation of unorthodox sluggers such as Conor McGregor and Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson is suddenly 39 years old.
Machida approaches this weekend's middleweight main event against Derek Brunson at UFC Fight Night 119 in Sao Paolo, Brazil, mired in his second 1-3 skid since 2010. Once you consider his recent year-and-a-half-long suspension for testing positive for a banned substance in an over-the-counter dietary supplement, this fight shapes up as a must-win.
That is, if The Dragon wants to stave off the notion he's on a downward slope toward retirement.
For his part, Machida insists his recent doping ban—perhaps an example of how the UFC's well-meaning drug-testing protocol can occasionally go too far—has actually done wonders for him. He said it allowed him to refresh, to switch up some of his training and, he hopes, add some longevity to the back end of his career.
"I needed this time away from it all," Machida said recently, per the Daily Star's Kevin Francis. "In all honesty, if I had continued the way I was going, I would probably have been retired."
It was Machida who arguably first made karate cool in the UFC, making his Octagon debut in 2007 having already become something of a legend in MMA chat rooms and on message boards. He'd gone 8-0 fighting in Japan and Brazil, defeating once and future UFC stars Stephan Bonnar, Rich Franklin and BJ Penn.
When his performance contact with manager and Japanese pro wrestling legend Antonio Inoki expired, Machida made the jump to America—first to the failed WFA and then the UFC. His early Octagon appearances proved he was worthy of the internet hype, as he went 8-0 and captured the 205-pound title with an emphatic second-round knockout of Rashad Evans at UFC 98.
But perhaps that fast start sent our expectations soaring unreasonably high. During the victory celebration following the Evans KO, the UFC declared it the dawn of the Machida Era. Unfortunately, that era would be very short-lived when Machida lost the title to Mauricio Rua almost a year later.
Afterward, Machida would remain a formidable presence in the Octagon, but he would never recapture the fearsome consistency of that early UFC run.
While his hunt-and-peck karate style could sometimes be devastating, it could also recede into listlessness. After just such a decision loss to Phil Davis in 2013, Machida dropped to middleweight and has gone a middling 3-3 since.
Those losses, however, were nothing to sneeze at, coming against 185-pound stalwarts Chris Weidman, Luke Rockhold and Yoel Romero.
To hear Machida himself tell it, these roller-coaster last few years were a physical and emotional grind for him. He hopes it's another thing that the downtime of his recent suspension has helped him fix.
"I think there was something wrong in my mind," he said, via Francis. "I just kept doing the same thing but I was expecting different results. I saw [the suspension] as a moment that I needed to step away a bit. I needed this hiatus to grow, too. I took some time for myself."
It is here that Machida's perhaps fading career meets up with Brunson, in a bout where the former light heavyweight titlist still has a lot to prove.
Brunson has been a good, but not great middleweight contender since coming to the UFC from Strikeforce in 2012. All told, he's put up an impressive-looking 8-3 record, but he's lost all of his highest-profile bouts—to Romero, current interim champion Robert Whittaker and Anderson Silva.
Perhaps it's that most recent loss to Silva that makes Brunson seem like an appealing opponent for Machida at this stage. After having a January 2015 victory over Nick Diaz overturned because of his own positive steroid test, Silva came into the Brunson fight officially winless since 2012.
Their fight was close, but Silva eventually secured a unanimous-decision win. In the aftermath, his reputation isn't fully rehabilitated, but the future looks much brighter for him. Silva could even snag a lucrative upcoming fight with Georges St-Pierre or a rematch with Michael Bisping, depending on how things shake out between those two at UFC 217.
It could be that Machida is hoping for a similar turnaround.
Brunson is a quality fighter but also the sort of guy the old Machida would take care of pretty easily. The 33-year-old American has good wrestling skills and powerful striking, but he occasionally becomes overly aggressive and leaves himself open for counters.
If Machida's still got it, Brunson's style should be one he can exploit. An inability to do that, on the other hand, might raise some troubling questions.
Overall, Machida's style has been heavily reliant on athleticism. He needs to be able to move around the Octagon in order to make it work. He needs to have the quickness to avoid his opponent's punches, as well as the reflexes and precision to land his own.
Frankly, it's a style that may not age well, and a loss or even a particularly close fight against Brunson might be read as a sign he's nearing the finish line of his notable—and notably strange—career.
Even the Karate Kid gets old.