Just before the historic debut of women in the Octagon at UFC 157 on Saturday at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., two former world champions will face off in the light heavyweight division. Dan Henderson and Lyoto Machida are the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked contenders, according to the new Ultimate Fighting Championship rankings, creating what normally could be considered a title eliminator. However, the accessibility to a title shot at 205 pounds remains uncertain, thanks to the recent development of potential new contenders like Alexander Gustafsson, Gegard Mousasi and Glover Teixeira.
Both Henderson and Machida have seen potential matchups with champion Jon Jones disappear. Henderson was set to face Jones at the ill-fated UFC 151 event, while Machida outshined his 205-pound peers during the same UFC on FOX event at which UFC President Dana White suggested would decide Jones’ next challenger. That was before the epic trash talking of Chael Sonnen and an “Ultimate Fighter” season stepped in the way. Instead, these two championship-caliber veterans will face each other in a fresh matchup that will cement one man’s position as a top contender and potentially destroy the other’s chances of ever getting another shot at the gold. Each man is also working to beat the ticking clock of Father Time and return to a title fight while they are still able to capitalize on the opportunity.
Henderson and Machida sport fight histories like hall of fame lists, as well as more than 16,000 Fight Metric data points. There is a lot to analyze, but we will start with the Tale of the Tape:
Though identically sized, there are some noteworthy findings here that differentiate the two. First and foremost, Henderson is 42 years old. That is a big deal. He is the oldest active fighter in the UFC now that Vladimir Matyushenko has been released. With age -- and cumulative fights -- fighters become increasingly susceptible to knockouts, and this number alone is reason for worry. Machida is 34, by no means a spring chicken, but he is still just within the age range for peak performance. Overall, an eight-year age discrepancy favors the younger fighter by an almost 2-to1 margin.
Another glaring point here is Henderson’s layoff of 462 days. His last appearance came in a grueling, five-round “Fight of the Year” contender in November 2011, as he defeated Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Henderson did not compete in the cage at all in 2012. Since 1997, he has never gone a full year without a fight -- until now. The unfortunate timing of injuries kept “Hendo” on the bench after a particularly busy and memorable 2011. It is hard to predict how a fighter will deal with such a long layoff when combined with progressing further into his 40s, but many are hoping to see the H-bomb unleashed at full speed. The realities of history and the human body, however, are against it. Rewind to April 2011 at UFC 129, where Machida’s jumping front kick ended the hall-of-fame career of the then 47-year-old Randy Couture. Mixing Machida’s explosive and precise striking with a human brain with more than four decades of age and experience has proven a bad combination before.
Machida and Henderson each have impressive highlight reels complete with fight-ending knockouts, and each has a “Knockout of the Year” award to his credit. The H-bomb right hand that posterized Michael Bisping and the crane kick that retired Couture remind us that, in addition to titles, experience and top-caliber opponents, Henderson and Machida have the skill and power to finish a fight with a single strike. That does not mean this analysis is a wash; we need to take a closer look at the data.
Machida’s karate background underlies a very explosive style of striking attack. His 38 percent power accuracy when striking opponents’ heads is amazingly high. Average for light heavyweights is 25 percent, and Henderson comes in below average at 22 percent. Both men are more accurate with their jab, but, again, Machida outperforms in this category.
On defense, Machida is also a statistical winner, making opponents miss often, while Henderson comes in about average. When looking down the entire list of these stats, Machida has an advantage in every single one of them, including his southpaw stance. “The Dragon’s” evasiveness on defense, combined with his flurries of accurate strikes, makes for a formidable combination that has led to 11 knockdowns in his 13 UFC appearances. Machida’s lone defeat via strikes came in his championship loss to “Shogun,” but he has gotten the better of a variety of opponents before and since.
Despite his average statistical profile, Henderson still brings a threat with his power. He, too, has knocked out a who’s who of top talent, including a trio of Strikeforce opponents. Though “Hendo” has never once been knocked out or finished by strikes, he has been dropped on three occasions. We have an interesting striking matchup that will play out in the UFC 157 co-main event, with clear technical advantages to Machida and the obvious puncher’s chance for Henderson.
Both fighters also bring grappling skills to mat but in very different styles. Here is how they have performed on the ground so far:
As a two-time Olympian, Henderson’s wrestling credentials are as solid as they come, with competitive accolades dating back to the 1980s. How has he translated those skills to MMA? Based on his performance so far, we see a fighter who certainly attempts his fair share of takedowns. On average, Henderson attempts about one takedown per round, landing a little less than half of them; on defense, opponents have had a hard time getting him down. However, once on the ground, Henderson’s activity becomes somewhat muted. He tends to get outworked by opponents and does not advance position often. Rarely does he get to a dominant position, such as side control or mount. With that said, Henderson has been facing top talent for a long time, and his wrestling remains a security outlet if he is ever in trouble. Fortunately for him, this fight is three rounds and not five. Despite gassing late against Rua, he controlled the fight early on. He will be hoping to implement a similar game plan against Machida.
Machida’s grappling stats show a very different profile. He attempts fewer takedowns but is more successful in landing them. Once on the ground, he has been aggressive advancing, has secured dominant positions and has generally outpaced his opponents in striking -- by an almost 3-to-1 clip. Despite only one submission finish, Machida holds a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu to compliment the other he holds in karate. We have seen him face solid wrestlers like Rashad Evans, Couture and Ryan Bader, avoiding takedowns and finishing each one by knockout. However, we also saw him falter against Jones, as he was choked out cold after being rocked. Machida is not perfect, but his statistical profile ranks among the best.
The Final Word
The oddsmakers currently have Machida as a -230 favorite, implying a 70-percent chance of victory for the Brazilian and bucking the official UFC rankings that have Henderson above Machida. The significant “Youth Advantage” Machida owns over Henderson is consistent with that betting line. The striking stats point to clear advantages for Machida, but Henderson’s power remains a threat, and Machida is not getting any younger. If Henderson gets this to the ground, we will see a stylistic battle between wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, between Henderson’s brute strength and Machida’s finesse. However, getting Machida to the ground may open Henderson’s already soft defense to his foe’s accurate flurries -- a mistake other wrestlers have made. Yet, we have seen Henderson surprise fans and younger opponents alike with the power in his hands.
The stakes are high here, because both fighters are potentially nearing the end of their careers. Winning rightly justifies a title shot that might not come until the end of the year or 2014. Losing -- and the time it will cost -- may mean never again competing for a UFC belt. As a result, before the women make history in the main event, we will see two legends write their own history, competing for the right to keep their championship hopes alive.
What do you think? Are there any particular stats you think reveal the difference in this matchup? Who wins and how? I will be back next month to run the numbers on Georges St-Pierre and Nick Diaz who will finally meet at UFC 158 -- we hope.
Note: Raw data for the analysis was provided by, and in partnership with FightMetric. All analysis was performed by Reed Kuhn. Reed Kuhn, Fightnomics, FightMetric and Sherdog.com assume no responsibility for bets placed on fights, financial or otherwise.
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