Many times a MMA bout is very much like the jousting scene in the amazing HBO series Game of Thrones. In the feudal world of Westeros, violence is a part of life. Sometimes it is petty and small; soldiers taunting and hazing newcomers to their units or angry queens having pets put to death. And sometimes it ends with blood gushing out of a dying man's neck.
Ser Hugh of Vale, newly knighted and competing with his King in the stands watching closely, had his life taken from him in an instant when Ser Gregor Clegane, the mountain who rides, sticks the pointy end of his lance right in his jugular. Many MMA fights have this kind of primitive brutality at their base, big men colliding at full force until one falls down. The violence is certainly less visceral than we might see in Game of Thrones, but the strategy is the same - force meeting force.
It's part of the reason Lyoto Machida was such a fresh face when he arrived on the MMA scene in America. Elusive, decisive, smart - these are words that had rarely been applied to cage fighters before the Machida era descended. Using the Shotokan Karate his father taught him in Brazil, Machida's goal was not to be hit, moving around the cage like a magician, waiting for the right time to strike.
It sounds simple and intuitive. Boxers had been using a similar strategy for decades. But in an industry that only knew the straight ahead, hard charging discipline of Muay Thai, what Machida was doing felt a little icky. It was such a radical departure from the norm that it almost defied description - and it just felt wrong to MMA fans bred on ultra violence.
Thai boxing was about being harder, tougher, and meaner than your opponent. It was the only style that had been vetted and approved by 10 years of MMA competition. What Machida did, as I explained in my MMA Encyclopedia, was different than anything MMA fans had ever seen before:
Karate, in short, wasn’t supposed to work. Not in 2009. The failure of traditional karate stylists in the early days of the UFC was seen by many in the martial arts community as the end of the art as a relevant fighting system. The karate club might still be a good place to drop the kids off after school, let them burn off some energy and improve their fitness in an environment that emphasized focus, discipline, and self-control. For most practitioners, those have always been the real benefits of the martial arts anyway, and a good karate dojo still holds to those values. But traditional karate was thought to be incapable of turning out fighters that could compete in the full-contact free-for-all of modern mixed martial arts.
Enter "The Dragon." Machida was by no means the first prominent mixed martial artist to hold rank in a traditional karate discipline, but he was the first to look like a karate fighter in the cage, to move like one. Leaping in and out of striking range with his head back in an uncommonly upright posture, throwing kicks from unpredictable angles, and disguising foot sweeps behind straight punches, Machida is a Sonny Chiba movie brought to life.
More on Machida and his history after the break.
We see Lyoto Machida in the UFC Octagon only because things went horribly wrong in Japan. Machida was supposed to be a star there. Born of a Japanese father and Brazilian mother, Machida had grown up in Belem, Brazil as a karate and sumo champion. He was discovered by Japanese professional wrestling legend Antonio Inoki who must have thought he was looking in a mirror.
Inoki too had been a Japanese raised in Brazil, eventually returning to his homeland to revolutionize the professional wrestling business, making the cartoony show violence resemble an actual contest - at least if you were determined to squint, never looking too closely. Machida was supposed to be Inoki reincarnated. He was given the best training and the plan was to carefully match him in MMA bouts, get a few big wins, and then transition into pro wrestling where he could finally be the man to fill Inoki's very large shoes.
Things went off track almost immediately. In his first match, in front of almost 50,000 fans at the Tokyo Dome, Machida was given Kengo Watanabe as his first opponent. Watanabe had been a big rugby star in Japan; solidly built and good looking, Pancrase had tried to turn him into an MMA star. It didn't take. the problem? He just wasn't very good at fighting.
Machida was supposed to lay waste to Kengo and move forward on his "Inoki Path" towards stardom. Instead, the karateka was cautious, engaging Watanabe only when necessary, content to ride out a boring decision. Machida never understood what it took to gain the fans' approval in Japan. There was no love to bask in, no cheers ringing in the arenas. Machida won five fights in a row, including an impressive knockout of UFC contender Rich Franklin, but he never won the hearts of the Japanese fans.
The idea of becoming the new Inoki was abandoned. A new goal emerged - becoming the best fighter in the world. In 2009 it looked like he had achieved it, beating Rashad Evans for the UFC light heavyweight title, in many ways the most prestigious title in the whole sport, and routinely getting the better of middleweight legend Anderson Silva in sparring. The template for success in MMA had long been established - wrestling base, submission avoidance, competent standup. Those were the tools of the trade for most UFC stars. Machida brought his own tools to the table, pulling them from a very different toolbox:
Although he began training in both sumo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as a teen, his study of other styles has always been in the service of implementing his family’s art. When Japanese professional wrestling legend Antonio Inoki took him under his wing, Machida added Muay Thai and wrestling to his repertoire. The end result of this extensive cross-training is a fighter who is versed in everything his opponents might throw at him – while his opponents have never seen anyone like Machida before.
Machida would eventually lose his title to Mauricio "Shogun" Rua at UFC 113 after just one title defense. What UFC announcer Joe Rogan called "The Machida era" was short lived. But Machida had a profound effect on the sport nonetheless. Machida brought beauty to a brutal world. His "Karate Kid" style kick to the jaw of UFC legend Randy Couture was typical of the kind of stylized violence he's brought to the sport. This is no brute. This is an artist at work, the cage his canvas. Before Lyoto Machida, MMA was being dangerously homogenized. No longer. Machida is MMA for the intellectual and one of the 52 great things about MMA I'll be celebrating this year.