The Dragon Awakens

One day, undefeated defensive genius Lyoto Machida decided to start knocking men out. He succeeded. His reward: a shot at the UFC light heavyweight belt.

On July 25, 1945, prior to his fi ght with the highly-rated Jackie Graves, featherweight boxing champion Willie Pep said something crazy to a group of assembled sportswriters: that he would win a round—the third, to be specifi c—without throwing a single punch. And then he went out and did it. It’s a story that has become part of boxing lore and, unlike Ruth’s “called shot” homer in the 1932 World Series, it happens to be completely and unambiguously true. For devotees of the Sweet Science, this was about as impressive as it could get. In the words of Bruce Lee, “It was the art of fi ghting, without fi ghting.” His efforts were not unrewarded: the little Italian with the astounding 230-11-1 record went on to become a charter member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, and is currently ranked as the sixth best boxer in history by Ring magazine.

But Willie Pep never put asses in seats. That responsibility fell to punishing bruisers like fellow Hall-of-Famer Jake LaMotta, who gave most fans what they wanted: brute violence, executed with heart, balls, and more than a little bit of skill. It was understandable. Who would you rather pay money to see: the “Raging Bull” or the “Will ’O the Wisp”?

Lyoto Carvalho Machida may be known as the “Dragon,” but for much of his career, the undefeated Brazilian has found himself in the same honorable but problematic niche once occupied by Pep. He was revered by most hardcore fi ght nuts, fi ght journalists, and fellow pros, but more or less ignored by casual fans. Despite his astonishing speed, effortlessly graceful footwork and a wholly unique, pinpoint-accurate karate-based stand-up game, and the fact that he had never lost a round in his entire career, Machida didn’t sell tickets or increase payper- view revenue. And he didn’t seem to care. Even when it was painfully obvious that his woefully overmatched foe didn’t have a prayer, Machida was unwilling to abandon his counter-striking style and go for the knockout. Out of his fi rst fi ve fi ghts in the UFC, four went the distance.

To make matters worse, the mixed-raced kid from the dark corners of the Amazon wasn’t exactly Muhammad Ali when it came to generating hype. Raised by his Japanese sensei father Yoshizo under the strict moral, spiritual, and intellectual precepts of traditional karate, Machida didn’t talk smack or play to the crowd. And he didn’t speak English. During press conferences and post-fi ght interviews, he often appeared shy and uncomfortable, perhaps embarrassed by the crude gladiator trappings and frat-house atmosphere the UFC brass had so carefully fostered on its way to marketing dominance.

In other words: Lyoto Machida may have mastered his art and was perhaps a potential all-time great, but to the vast majority of UFC fans, he was just pretty damn boring. And boring does not headline a fi ght card in the marketing machine that is the UFC, let alone score a fi ghter a shot at a title.

And then, without warning, the Dragon emerged from his lair and started to breathe some fi re. It happened on January 31, 2009 at UFC 94 in an undercard fi ght against Thiago Silva. After going after the undefeated, yet thoroughly outclassed fellow Brazilian with uncharacteristic aggressiveness, the man whom many viewers had long considered to be a pitty-pat striker and sub-par wrestler, tossed Silva to the mat like a rag doll, and then, in one superbly graceful and fl uid motion, he leapt forward, dove to the ground and planted one devastating and perfectly accurate right hand to the chin of his grounded opponent, separating him from consciousness. The time: 4:59 of the fi rst round. It was Machida’s fi rst knockout win in fi ve years, a perfect and poetic statement to all those who had dared to question his heart or his power. The defensive genius who had frustrated fans and UFC brass by exhibiting only fl ashes of a devastating striking and submission arsenal (Machida has black belts in sumo wrestling, karate, and Jiu-Jitsu) had fi nally abandoned his safety-fi rst style and unleashed the heavy artillery. In other words, Popeye had just decided to eat his spinach.

What happened a few minutes later was even more surprising. As UFC color commentator Joe Rogan looked on in mystifi ed bemusement, Machida embraced his inner B.J. Penn. He grabbed the microphone, and then screamed in crude but understandable English, “I am very happy to be here! Thiago is a tough guy, but today I was better than him. I love my fans. In America, when I fi ght here, I feel I’m home.” Rogan then asked him if he felt he deserved a title shot, and Machida pulled a move worthy of a true showman veteran self-promoter: he got the crowd involved. “People! [Do] I deserve the title shot,” he bellowed. The arena erupted in cheers. “Whatever, whatever, I’m here,” he said, sending a clear message to the rest of the 205-pound division, Dana White, and whoever else was watching. Not only did Lyoto Machida have dynamite in his fi sts, he also had more than a little star power.

The Silva KO wasn’t an aberration, a lucky accident. Quite the opposite. In fact, Machida’s performance that night was the result of a full-scale adjustment—both stylistic and philosophical—that he and his inner circle (which includes Yoshizo and his brother, Chinzo) had been working on for months. It was meticulously designed, refi ned, and then fi nally perfected during countless hours in the family’s dojo in the remote Northeastern city of Belem, a city in Northeastern Brazil that serves as the gateway to the mysterious and dangerous Amazon River. If there’s one thing you need to know about Lyoto Machida, it’s that nothing he has ever done has been uncalculated, accidental or reckless. His approach to training has been all consuming and unwavering, going far beyond the arts of distance, footwork, and perfectly executed strikes and submissions. Along with his phenomenal physical abilities, Machida is a faithful and obsessive adherent of the ancient Japanese warrior codes of the samurai and the karate-ka. It’s for these reasons that he is quite possibly the purest martial artist that the sport has ever seen.

And while a true warrior must adhere strictly to the concepts of honor, loyalty, and compassion, he must also test himself. And in this particular case, at this particular time, the test Machida has set for himself consists of one thing only: winning and defending the UFC light heavyweight championship. If this means playing to a crowd of fans who may or may not truly appreciate what he brings into the Octagon, then so be it. And now, thanks to one stunning performance and an unexpected shakeup in the UFC fi ght calendar, Machida’s prayers have been answered.

On March 7, in Columbus, Ohio, Rampage Jackson faced off the granitechinned Keith Jardine in a bout intended to give some clarity to the competitive light heavyweight pecking order. If Rampage won, he’d get a shot at reclaiming his title from current champ Rashad Evans at UFC 100 in July. But if the unorthodox Jardine, Evans’s close friend and training partner, pulled off the upset, Evans would face off against Machida. Rampage eked out the win over three hotly contested rounds. Yet again, Machida’s future was up in the air.

But karma doesn’t always have to be a bitch, especially when you’ve conducted yourself as righteously as Machida has. On the same night, following an injury to interim heavyweight champ Frank Mir, Evans’ bout got pushed up to May 23. Jackson, who had injured his jaw during the Jardine fi ght, wouldn’t be ready in time. Machida, on the other hand, was ready to go. Less than four months after delivering the shot heard round the MMA world to Silva’s chin, Machida gets his chance to assume supremacy over the UFC’s stacked 205-pound division.

I fi rst met Machida in March 2008, when he was enjoying his fi rst wave of UFC momentum. The victim: Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou, a Cameroonian judo expert and Team Quest stud who had obliterated a couple of world-class opponents in Japan’s PRIDE Fighting Championships. For months preceding the fi ght at UFC 79, Sokoudjou had been hyped as the future of the light heavyweight division. Machida proved otherwise. After toying with the African for the fi rst round, Machida took the fi ght to the ground in the second stanza and quickly locked in a beautifully executed triangle choke from the mount. It was his fi rst stoppage victory in his fi ghts for the UFC. As a result, company honcho Dana White, who had regularly hyped Machida’s skill set in the slickly-produced pre-fi ght promos that aired constantly on basic cable, rewarded the Brazilian with his fi rst high-profi le fi ght: a chance to send Tito Ortiz out of the Octagon forever with another loss on his record.

White had managed Ortiz before either one of them had become a household name, but since an ugly falling out in 2003, the former friends and fellow egomaniacs went after each other relentlessly in the press. White took obvious joy in making the publicity-hungry former champ look badly, and in the months leading up to the fi ght, it was widely assumed that if Machida did something spectacular and embarrassed the faded Ortiz, his efforts would be rewarded with a chance to fi ght for the light heavyweight belt.

There was only one problem: Machida was not the right fi ghter, stylistically or philosophically, to be enlisted in such an undignifi ed battle of egos. Inside and outside the gym, Machida seemed to regard the world from higher, nobler ground. Since childhood, he had been taught to show only the utmost respect to all his opponents, even if one of them happened to be an egomaniacal thorn in the side of the man who controlled his professional career. He also didn’t make his opponents look bad by hurting them, but by making them miss. This point was made emphatically clear to me after watching Lyoto spar for an hour against a series of world-class opponents in Vlad Matyushenko’s tiny gym in El Segundo. Despite the cramped quarters, he never once got hit cleanly by a sparring partner. He could win a fi ght in a booth without suffering even a scratch, but the other guy might also be left standing.

Machida was also entering a new phase in his personal life: His wife, Fabyola, from whom he’d been inseparable since high school, was six months pregnant. Their son, Tayo, the Japanese word for “sun,” was born last September. He was also a genuinely nice guy, serious and soft-spoken, confi dent but devoid of ego. In other words, if White were looking for someone to humiliate Ortiz on his way out the door, he would have fared much better betting his money on a macho, fan-friendly KO machine like Rampage Jackson or Wanderlei Silva.

And that’s exactly the way it played out. While Machida dominated the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” over three rounds at UFC 84, he didn’t exactly demoralize him. In fact, Ortiz even managed to nearly lock in an arm bar in the bout’s closing seconds. The result: Ortiz left the UFC with his head held justifi ably high, and Machida backtracked to where he had been before Sokoudjou: respected by insiders but not within striking distance of a title shot. This was not what Dana White wanted. A disappointed Machida wouldn’t fi ght again for another nine months.

I haven’t seen Machida in person for the better part of a year, but as I drive down to his Hermosa Beach hotel on a sunny afternoon in late February, I’m especially conscious that I’m about to be reintroduced to a man transformed. Since we last spoke, Machida had become a father, turned 30, learned some passable English and had embraced, to some degree, his inner Hulk Hogan, at least when it came to his adrenaline-fueled Octagon antics. But most importantly, he had decided to change gears and ensure that his opponents went to sleep before the fi nal bell. All of this makes me slightly ill at ease. There was much to admire about the engaging and unpretentious young fi ghter I remember, who grinned like an eight-year-old as he drove around a strip-mall parking lot in a friend’s vintage convertible. And I’m hoping he didn’t compromise any of those honorable or unpretentious qualities, even by a little bit, when he decided to play by the unspoken rules of the UFC in his quest for the belt.

Whatever cynical doubts I may have been foolishly entertaining are quickly put aside as soon as I walk into the hotel lobby. Machida is sitting rather shyly in a chair, surrounded by three 20-ish hipsters, including Derek Lee, who helps Machida’s managers, Ed Soares and Jorge Guimaraes, take care of their Brazilian talent whenever they swing by Southern California. Upon seeing me, Lyoto stands, cracks a sheepish grin, and then gives me a bear hug. “You hear I have a son?” he asks me happily. He is so un-jaded by his success that it’s refreshing to behold. I fi nd it impossible to refrain from admiring Machida. He’s been fi ghting the good fi ght, and he’s been winning.

I give Machida a hard time about his post-fi ght antics. Did Soares push him to do a little self-promotion? “It wasn’t planned. My body just did it. Ed and George will tell me certain things, but they don’t change my attitude, because it doesn’t need to be changed,” he says with characteristic matter-of-factness. “I had a great fi ght and it made me more confi dent. It made me more comfortable to go out there and ask people if I deserve a title shot. Ed didn’t tell me to say anything; it was just how I felt. I feel really at home in the UFC and in the United States. I feel like I know everybody and that this is where I belong.”

Machida is a guy whose idea of letting loose is spending an afternoon with his father and brothers discussing strategy at a barbecue, so a conversation about technique can last for hours. After demonstrating why his closed karate stance can nullify an opponent’s jab while still keeping him within striking range, Machida begins to explain the new wrinkle in his game. “Before, I was a counter-striker only. After I attacked, I would back off,” he says. “I’m still a counter-striker, but now I keep going forward. I stay aggressive. I wanted to show people more of my technique. I wanted to show them that I could knock a guy out.” Why? Because unlike what you might assume after having watched Machida dance away from trouble for most of his career, the key distinction between Shotokan and other forms of karate is not defensive technique— which is more or less consistent throughout every karate sub-discipline—but the art of the power strike. “One punch has to take the guy down,” he explains. “But you have to strike at the right time and at the right distance.”

And that’s when it truly begins to make sense. Machida hasn’t merely made a politically expedient decision to curry favor with the UFC brass and its fans. He’s fi ghting for his family’s honor; he’s taking it personally. “I’m trying to bring out the essence of karate as a martial art, not the sport of karate, not what you see in karate competition,” he tells me. “In pure karate, there’s knees and elbows and different types of strikes, and I’m trying to bring back that type of style.” In other words, Machida has decided to send a message to the uninitiated: If you think Shotokan fi ghters can’t knock a man out, you better watch yourself, because Lyoto Machida is about to violently demonstrate the error of your ways. And while he may have been untouchable during his UFC run thus far, he has only begun to realize his full potential. There were also other factors. In his early fi ghts, Machida fought as a heavyweight, and he now admits that cutting down to 205 pounds has since affected his performance. But with the help of Eduardo Lisboa, the strength and conditioning coach who joined Team Machida prior to the Silva fi ght, he’s been able to take his explosiveness and power down with him. It also took Machida, a technical perfectionist if there ever was one, quite a bit of time to feel at home inside the Octagon, as opposed to the traditional square boxing rings he had always fought in before joining the UFC. But those days are over. It’s time to prove the doubters wrong. Consider this for a moment: A guy who has never found himself in danger during a fi ght is getting better, and he’s got a message that he needs to broadcast to the world with his fi sts and feet. That’s a very scary thought for potential opponents, especially given the fact that no one Machida has fought has ever exposed anything resembling a chink in his proverbial armor.

I wouldn’t call him a great pound-forpound fi ghter yet, but I would say he’s well on his way to becoming one,” says trainer extraordinaire Greg Jackson, the man faced with the unenviable task of devising a workable strategy for Evans to use against Machida. “Like all great stylistic fi ghters, what looks to be wrong is actually right. Look at Muhammad Ali. He would bounce around with his head up and his hands down, which are no-nos in boxing. Machida will stand tall with his back real straight and direct and with his chin held high, but you just can’t get to him. To me, the sign of a real stylistic genius is if you can do things that are counterintuitive, but still make them work for you. I have the utmost respect for him.”

But don’t mistake Jackson’s praise for the elusive Brazilian as a sign of intimidation. In fact, if there’s anyone capable of discovering holes in Machida’s heretofore- impenetrable defense and taking him out of his comfort zone, it’s probably the intense, shaven-headed fi ght wizard from Albuquerque. But while pound-for-pound Canadian phenom Georges St-Pierre may be Jackson’s most complete fi ghter and the team stud, Evans is his masterpiece. At the end of 2005, the former NCAA wrestling champ was a one-dimensional afterthought who had barely squeaked by his competition on The Ultimate Fighter 2 thanks to a combination of grappling skills, natural ability and toughness. Then he hooked up with Jackson, and in less than three years developed into a truly complete, technically sound mixed martial artist. The cocky dude, whose sloppy street-fi ghting style and playground antics inside the TUF Octagon elicited both mockery and derision from his fellow contestants, now boasts some of the best stand up skills in the entire division. He also has the one intangible all fi ghters will need to counter Machida’s otherworldly skill set: legitimate one-strike knockout power. And while Machida may have knocked out former middleweight champ Rich Franklin before either man had a UFC contract, and outworked the comically-smaller B.J. Penn during the Hawaiian’s ill-fated move up in weight, Evans has arguably fought the better competition and he seems to get better every time out. In his two most recent bouts, he brutally knocked out two of the division’s most feared fi ghters—Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffi n—en route to winning the UFC’s light heavyweight title. Evans is a live dog who revels in defying expectations, and he’s got the MMA version of Yoda in his corner.

But unlike Griffi n and Liddell, there won’t be any squaring up and exchanging bombs between Machida and Evans. The champ and his ace trainer have their work cut out for them, and they know it. “It’s hard to prepare for [Machida] because there’s nobody else that will fi ght like him—that’s the power of an unorthodox fi ghter,” says Jackson. “It’s going to be a real challenge, not only for Rashad, but for our coaching staff as well, to fi gure out a way around this amazing, amazing guy. Still, without giving anything away, I believe that nobody’s infallible, and I think there’s ways of getting around any style. I’ve got some ideas.”

While Jackson is understandably tightlipped about what those ideas might be, Pat Miletich, perhaps the most respected trainer in the history of MMA, isn’t quite as vague about how he’d prepare one of his Bettendorf, Iowa-based bruisers for the elusive Brazilian. “Whoever’s got a guy fi ghting him better sit down and really analyze the hell out of the way he moves, and fi gure out the right game plan,” says Miletich. “Obviously, he’s very talented and he would adjust most of the time, but you have to throw a lot of fakes to get him settled back, on his back leg, and then come in with a real three-to-fi ve punch combo off your fakes. And a lot of guys in MMA are just not capable of doing that. I think Rashad gives Machida the most problems. He’s a really good athlete and has an interesting style that would give anybody trouble. He’s got good wrestling, got good boxing, a lot of movement, and I think he’s probably the best guy for that type of match.” But as the counter-punching boxing wizard Bernard Hopkins once said before an upcoming bout with the volume-punching Joe Calzaghe: “If he throws 1,000 punches, he’s opening himself up to get hit 1,000 times.” And there’s no one in MMA better at capitalizing on an opening than Machida. If Evans is going to come forward with multi-punch combinations, his boxing technique needs to be fl awless, and he’d better move his head.

Despite his obvious superiority in both overall skill and martial-arts experience, Machida won’t be taking Evans lightly. He has been training six days a week, every week, for as long as he can remember. Overconfi dence or a lackluster training camp isn’t a possibility, especially given what’s at stake. “I always feel that whoever I’m fi ghting is the best, that way I don’t underestimate them,” Machida tells me before heading upstairs to get some rest before his fl ight home to Belem. “My brother and my dad always taught me that when the tiger is hunting, if he chases after deer or if he chases after a rabbit, he chases with the same speed and the same aggressiveness, and he catches it the same way. It’s not because he’s chasing a bunny that he’s going to take it easy.”

During my fi rst encounter with Machida, he told me several times that he wanted to become the greatest fi ghter the world has ever seen. Since then, Machida has abandoned such an abstract desire and replaced it with a very tangible goal, though he is far from compromising his ambitions. “I just want to get to the top and not look back,” he says. “The top is to be champion, but I don’t want to be a champion, I want to be the champion,” he says. “For me to do that, I have to carry myself and conduct my life like a champion. I want to be remembered as a role model for younger kids that look up to me, not just a guy who was a great fi ghter, but as a guy who went after what he wanted and got there. I don’t want to be arrogant. I just want to be a centered guy.” And if all goes according to plan, which is the only way its been going since the moment he fi rst put on a Gi, Lyoto Machida will get a chance to begin realizing those grand and honorable aspirations. And now that those aspirations include showing the world what it means to be a true Shotokan master, coasting to another decision win is no longer acceptable. “A perfect win would be to throw just one punch and knock the guy out, because that just means that I did the right thing at the right time,” he says. “That’s what I train for.” In other words, when Machida walks into MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas in May, he won’t simply be gunning for the bling-encrusted UFC leather wrapped around Rashad Evans’s waist; he’ll be singularly focused on putting Evans to sleep well before the end of the fi fth round. 2009 may very well go down in history as the Year of the Dragon in mixed martial arts.

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