Enter The Dragon

It’s common for sportswriters to mythologize the men they cover, to exaggerate their accomplishments, their histories, their presence in a room. Athletes, after all, exist to show us, the mere mortals, that the impossible— the hole-in-one, the perfect game, the knockout— can actually happen.

But sometimes the man and the myth are, in fact, one and the same: a mixedrace kid named Tiger shooting a 48 on the front nine at the age of three; a chubby orphan called the Babe dominating everyone he faced on the diamond, fi rst with his arm, then with his bat; a skinny white boy known as Pistol Pete busting out playground moves that hadn’t even been seen on the Rucker Park courts in Harlem yet. You can’t invent that shit.

Only time will tell if mixed martialartist Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida will someday ascend to the lofty heights of the legends described above. But a few facts already exist: First, his record, so far, is a perfect one; and second, his bio reads like something out of a comic book, or a Bruce Lee movie.

The following is completely true:

Yoshizo Machida, a seventh degree black belt in Shotokan karate, moves from Japan to Brazil in his early 20s. His destination of choice: Belem, a remote city in the northeast corner of the country, best known as being the gateway to the Amazon. He marries a Brazilian girl, and in 1978, Lyoto is born. At three years old, Lyoto begins his education in the technique and philosophy of Shotokan, which emphasizes movement, defense and accurate strikes. At the age of nine, young Lyoto sees a sumo demonstration at a local festival and decides to take up the sport. As a teenager, he gets his hands on a videotape of UFC1, and watches as Royce Gracie, a fellow Brazilian, wins the historic event using only Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He makes himself a promise on the spot: one day, he will be a champion. He then signs up for classes in BJJ.

Around this time, he meets Fabiola, a beautiful girl in his class. They never leave each other’s side. Rather than turn pro early, Lyoto waits, studies, and learns as much as he can. He wakes up every morning at 5 a.m., never drinks alcohol, and only eats organic food. He never gets a job—he just trains. He marries Fabiola. He does not want to enter the ring unprepared. Japanese wrestling legend Antonio Inoki hears about him and offers to bring him to Japan for training. Lyoto accepts. Soon afterward, the young man, now a truly complete fi ghter with black belts in karate, sumo, and BJJ, enters the ring for the fi rst time. In just his third fi ght, he is matched up against future UFC superstar Rich Franklin, who at the time is an undefeated fi ghter who’s never had to go the distance. Lyoto stops him with a vicious barrage of strikes in the second round. Other triumphs follow. He outworks men big and small, including 250-pound behemoth Sam Greco, as well as the Prodigy himself, BJ Penn (something tells me BJ had no idea what he was in for). Then he gets a phone call. It’s from the UFC, the Big Show. They want him. He’s got his one shot to make good on his self-imposed prophecy. Up next: ACT II.

I fi rst meet Machida in the most unlikely of places—inside a conference room in an offi ce park on the outskirts of Carlsbad, California, a seaside resort town north of San Diego. This is the headquarters for Two Harbors Trading, an importer of exotic fruits whose staff also moonlights as the Kid’s unoffi cial and unpaid publicists. The gang from True Harbor has known Lyoto for all of four months, when two members of the team, Jeff Yates and Paul Jacinto, traveled down to Brazil in search of acai, the “superfruit” that’s begun to fi nd a market in the U.S. They ended up in Belem, where they found a supplier, Bony Acai, as well as Machida, Bony’s offi cial poster boy and the town’s favorite son. As it turned out, Lyoto, Fabiola, Jeff and Paul were all booked on the same fl ight to Vegas later that week, and by the time the plane landed, the men from Two Harbors were offering the young couple a place to stay and have been making introductions for them. “We just want to help him,” explains Yates of his company’s uncommon relationship with Machida. “We’re just doing it because we care about him. His major sponsor is our supplier, so the bigger he gets, the more people will know about acai. But let’s face it—from a business point of view, we don’t stand to make any real money. We all just really like Lyoto and want to do what we can to help make sure he’s successful.”

Normally, a business arrangement like the one Two Harbors has with a foreign fi ghter like Machida would reek of bad intentions. But in this case, I happen to buy it. And it’s not just because these American friends seem like straight shooters, or that Lyoto and Fabiola are two of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet. It’s more than that. To borrow from the great ’80s camp chopsocky fl ick, The Last Dragon, Lyoto’s got “the glow,” an aura of unfailing confi – dence that comes only from years of discipline and training, and the results to back it up. Perhaps there’s a spiritual element to him, a yin and a yang, an inner peace that draws you in but also commands respect. Maybe it’s his heritage—one part Japanese discipline, and one part Brazilian joie de vivre. But it’s there. I spend the next two days with Lyoto and Fabiola, and everywhere we go he’s treated differently, with more respect, by both fi ghters and civilians alike. And he’s not even famous. Not yet, anyway.

Lyoto and a very pregnant Fabiola have been in the U.S. for about a week, most of which was spent at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose. The next intended victim: Dana White nemesis Tito Ortiz, perhaps the most recognizable name in all of mixed martial arts, who he will face off against on May 24. Tito’s days as a top light heavyweight appear to be behind him, but his stints on Celebrity Apprentice, The Ultimate Fighter, and the red carpet with girlfriend/porn goddess Jenna Jameson have assured Machida a shot at superstardom, as well as a chance to compete for the light heavyweight title, perhaps before the end of the year. While he should enter the ring as the betting favorite, Machida isn’t taking Ortiz lightly. “Tito’s strong, he’s good, I know he’ll be prepared, because I know he wants to prove something to Dana White,” Machida tells me. “But I don’t worry about his business. He’s fi ghting me, not Dana White.” Too bad for Tito.

Six months ago, a highprofi le bout in the UFC didn’t appear to be in Machida’s future. That all changed in December, when he was matched up against a man who many were tagging as the future of the UFC’s light heavyweight division: Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou, aka the “African Assassin,” a Cameroonian kickboxer/judo specialist who bears an uncanny resemblance to the dreadlocked alien from The Predator franchise. Despite sporting a thin 4-1 record, Sokoudjou’s last couple of fi ghts in the Pride organization had been spectacular: back-to-back fi rst-round knockouts of two of the best 205-pounders in the world: Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Ricardo Arona. Sokoudjou had recently joined Team Quest, and been taken under the wing of none other than Dan Henderson. He was the new stud in town.

Machida, on the other hand, wasn’t exactly a UFC fan favorite. In his fi rst three outings inside the Octagon, he had coasted to uneventful, safety-fi rst decision wins over the rugged but limited David Heath, Sam Hoger and Kazurhiro Nakamura. Things didn’t get off to a good start: Machida’s passport got lost in the mail, and by the time he got a new one, the fi ght was only a couple of days away. He arrived in Vegas a mere 24 hours before stepping into the cage.

It didn’t matter. Machida absolutely dominated the Cameroonian, landing strikes at will, and then popping out without being touched. A few minutes in, Sokoudjou shot for a takedown but was reversed immediately, then spent the next few minutes absorbing nasty elbows to his thighs while he fl ailed around like a crab in the sand. The fi rst round ended, and as he walked back to his corner, Sokoudjou seemed thoroughly confused. Understandable, considering he hadn’t landed a single blow. In the second round, Machida took his time and circled, then found an opening and caught Sokoudjou with a punch as he came in. The fi ght went to the ground, and Machida began raining down strikes. A minute later, he locked in an arm triangle from top position and the fi ght was over. In less than ten minutes, Machida’s status within the UFC had skyrocketed. He hadn’t just simply outclassed his overmatched opponent; he had also shown the fans—and more importantly, Dana White—that he could beat a dangerous opponent in explosive fashion. White promptly rewarded Machida with a fi vefi ght contract.

Machida doesn’t look like a man who hurts people for a living. Save for a slightly caulifl owered ear, his face is smooth, unmarked. That’s because he doesn’t get hit. “My father always said to me, “The most important weapon in fi ghting is your eyes,” he tells me. “You always need to see the punches, the kicks, before they come. The second most important weapon is your base. You need to be strong. Everything else—arms, legs—they come afterward.”

Mixed martial arts may be constantly evolving, but most of today’s top fi ghters tend to limit their striking training to some combination of Muay Thai and Western boxing, both of which employ a squared stance and fairly straight-ahead style. Shotokan, however, emphasizes the elusive: you get in, you strike, you get out, and then reset. You never square up. It may not make for a crowd-pleasing brawl, but if a fi ghter has the athletic ability to stick and move with his punches and kicks like Machida can, he can employ Shotokan to deliver blows from unorthodox angles without exposing himself to much damage. The fact that Machida’s a southpaw only makes him more diffi cult to fi gure out. Just ask Sokoudjou.

I get a chance to witness Machida’s Rubik’s Cube of a fi ghting style in person at Vladimir Matyushenko’s VMAT gym in El Segundo, a suburb south of LAX. Machida has trained with Matyushenko (“The Russian Janitor”) on and off for the past fi ve years, and today he’s here to help his old buddy prepare for his upcoming defense of the IFL light heavyweight title against Jamal Patterson. I watch Matyushenko go at it against a number of established pros, including EliteXC middleweight Jared Hamman and UFC heavyweight Antoni Hardonk. The tough Russian, who’s built like he’s been carved out granite, moreor- less imposes his will against each of his training partners. Then he gets to Lyoto, and things change. For two rounds, Matyushenko doesn’t land a single blow, while Lyoto pops in and out, peppering his friend with an arsenal of lightly-delivered but perfectly placed punches and kicks. It’s mesmerizing.

“Lyoto waited for a long time before he went pro, and I know a lot of people thought that was a bad idea,” Matyushenko tells me after the sparring session. “But the whole time, he was observing other fi ghters, and when he fi nally did start, he was ready to go. Now it’s his time, and he’s ready. He’s powerful, but he uses his power only as a last resort. He’s a great athlete, a great striker, and he’s terrifi c on the ground. People might think a karate guy wouldn’t want to go to the ground, but just look what he did to Sokoudjou. He is defi nitely one of the best fi ghters in the world, no question about it.” Ten days later, Matyushenko would retain his title with a second-round TKO.

Also in the gym that day is Machida’s manager, Ed Soares, a cool-as-a-cucumber Brazilian-American who also manages UFC titleholders Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Anderson Silva. “By the end of the year, Lyoto will be the UFC light heavyweight champion of the world,” Soares responds matter-of-factly. “I believe that there are three fi ghters in the UFC that are bringing the essence of martial arts back into the UFC. One of them is Lyoto, the other is Anderson, and the other one is Georges St. Pierre. These guys are the next evolution of fi ghters, but we’re seeing them now. Lyoto is the Karate Kid. He’s the future.”

A few hours later, as Lyoto and Fabiola are about to leave, I tell him what his manager said about him, and ask him if he agrees. “I was born to be a fi ghter. I didn’t have any other dream, any other way to live,” he says. “Fighting has always been my life. I have confi dence in my technique, my style, my movement. I know what I can do. So yes, I think I have everything to be the best, but I just need the opportunity to prove it. ”

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