After a slow burn from the early days of UWF and Pancrase to the packed arenas of today that follow the UFC wherever it goes, evolution seemed to be in short supply. The code had been cracked; the pillars of the sport were supposed to be wrestling, judo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing and muay Thai. End of story.
Then came an unassuming light heavyweight bred on Shotokan karate and sumo, the product of exposure to both the traditional Japanese martial arts that his father passed on to him and his own unflinching acceptance of the modern fighting styles of today. Lyoto Machida is an absolute anomaly in a sport where a rigid notion of what works is defended at the expense of innovation, which is what makes his future even more compelling than his past.
As the newly crowned UFC light heavyweight champion, Machida not only joins the pantheon of past champions but also has to avoid tacking onto the UFC’s streak of one and done light heavyweight champions. Ironically, Machida’s recent predecessors represent some of his stiffest competition.
Quinton "Rampage" Jackson was supposed to be building a legendary title run. Instead he lost his belt in an epic bout with Forrest Griffin and subsequently went off the rails. Now back to whatever qualifies as “normal” for him, Jackson is expected to be the first in line for Machida’s gold and as one of the division’s best boxer/wrestler hybrids, he can work the game plan that no one has had the good sense to go for.
Standing with Machida has become the cool thing to do, and it’s gotten some of the division’s best nothing more than a loss and some short-term memory problems. However, Jackson’s orthodox boxing style is good enough to get him inside on Machida without getting chin checked, which would put him in prime position to slam Machida to the mat and turn the fight into something other than another Shotokan striking seminar.
The two fighters in the division who have something different to offer Machida also have the most to prove. In fact, one of them may not even get the chance, as Forrest Griffin has to deal with UFC middleweight champion and pound-for-pound luminary Anderson Silva before even being considered for another run at the title he once held. Regardless, Griffin’s bruising, physical style and sadistic taste for punishment have taken him from being just another one of Dana White’s chosen ones to a legitimate force in the sport’s most demanding weight class.
Of course, Griffin’s love of fistic fireworks makes him a major wildcard in the cage, especially since his chin is hardly bulletproof. Tempering that wild-eyed bloodlust and focusing on bulling Machida around and turning the fight into a trench war instead of a Wild West fistfight would be the key variable in any scenario that involves Griffin winning. In other words, you’d have to bank on Griffin fighting a mistake free fight against a fighter who simply doesn’t make mistakes.
Mistakes and more have hounded Mauricio "Shogun" Rua during his UFC run. Coming into fights with his knee in tatters and his cardio MIA sent his once brilliant career into a decline that culminated against Mark Coleman -- a sloppy, amateurish display of professional fighting. Thankfully, just as quickly as Rua dovetailed into mediocrity, he got everything back in sync and turned Chuck Liddell into the canvas on which he painted the sign announcing his return.
Don’t get me wrong, Rua is by far the biggest wildcard in the division -- a once great fighter who may or may not have rediscovered his past self. If Shogun can somehow resurrect the explosive, versatile fighter of old -- the fighter who looked set to become the light heavyweight monarch of our time -- he may be the only man who can truly stand toe to toe with Machida and expect something other than a loss.
Between his loaded punches, unorthodox arsenal of kicks, slick grappling and pure fighting instincts, Rua is the only fighter in the light heavyweight division who goes beyond the typical definition of what a modern mixed martial artist is supposed to be. Whether Rua simply looked great against a fading star in Liddell or whether he was making real progress toward fulfilling his unfulfilled potential is the important question, and no one has the answer to that one.
The answer may not even matter because Machida is a fighter that no one can prepare for. There isn’t a training camp in the world that can prepare a fighter for him. No one keeps training partners around who happen to be world-class Shotokan karate fighters. Even if someone starts, good luck finding one who also studies sumo, jiu-jitsu and muay Thai.
I’m not in the practice of assuming much of anything when it comes to a sport as wildly unpredictable as MMA, but I am getting myself ready to see the next generation of fighters take a second look at the forgotten styles of old. No matter how long Machida holds the belt, having a fighter leave behind a legacy built on rediscovering respect for tradition and ditching the pseudo-macho trappings of modern MMA is something we’ve all been missing out on until now.