After an 18-month absence as a result of a steroid suspension and over two years outside of the cage, Lyoto Machida’s anticipated return to the UFC took just two and a half minutes to conclusion. Middleweight contender, Derek Brunson landed a left hook that staggered the former Light Heavyweight champion and a series of strikes that followed knocked out the karate fighter, which promoted the referee to stop the contest. In a contrast to the dynamic finished, the stoppage provided what could be an anti-climactic conclusion to a career that was surrounded by a lot of hype just a few years ago.
Of Japanese and Brazilian descent, Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida brought a unique image to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, one that management certainly tried to promote to the fullest to generate revenue, and in the process, make a marketable star. Clad in a traditional karate gi and known for his darting style, Machida presented a Bruce Lee type of image. Again, the UFC saw the potential in this persona, and there was a time when many thought he would add his name to the list of dominate 205 LBS champions.
Ironically, Machida’s journey into mixed marital arts is actually linked to professional wrestling. The legendary Japanese promoter Antonio Inoki, who famously fought Muhammad Ali in a primitive MMA fight in 1976, ran the event where Lyoto made his MMA debut in 2003. While Inoki’s MMA experiment almost led to the collapse of New Japan Pro Wrestling, it launched a successful beginning to Lyoto’s career, as he went undefeated in his early bouts, fighting in a variety of organizations at different weight classes.
Eventually, he landed in the UFC in 2007 and racked up four wins that year with three decisions and a submission victory. Despite the success, the decision wins didn’t exactly distinguish him from the rest of the division, which at the time had arguably the most depth of any weight class in the history of the company. However, the following year, Lyoto had a stand out performance against former champion Tito Ortiz in a lopsided decision victory. In 2009, he knocked out dangerous striker Thiago Silva in the first round and secured a title shot just a few months later.
“Dragon” Machida became known for his unorthodox style and counter punches that created a unique puzzle for his opponents in the octagon. UFC brass made a wise business decision when they marketed him as the human Rubik’s cube, providing the scenario that prompted a narrative about if his opponents could solve the Machida equation. Again, the gi, headband, and karate style added to the mystic of the athlete that dodged punches before he jumped forward to land a counter punch.
In some ways, when Lyoto knocked out Rashad Evans to win the UFC Light Heavyweight championship at UFC 98, he justified the hype around him, but that was relatively short-lived as his first title defense later that same year at UFC 104 was surrounded by controversy. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua challenged for the belt and proceeded to use leg kicks to score points against the champion for the better part of five rounds. In one of the most questionable decisions in the history of the sport, somehow Machida was awarded the decision to retain the title. Many objected to the official score cards so a rematch was scheduled for mid-2010.
This time, “Shogun” Rua left no doubt about the result when he knocked out Machida via brutal strikes in the first round to claim the championship. In retrospect, that KO exposed Lyoto as a much less mythical fighter than he was perceived previously, and it could be considered a turning point in his career. His chin hadn’t truly been tested in the UFC prior to that because of his elusive style, but his lack of an ability to take a punch eventually became a theme in his career. The solution to the Machida puzzle was simple, if a punch landed then he didn’t handle it well. After he dropped the belt, he lost a decision to Rampage Jackson before he defeated the aging Randy Couture in 2011.
Clearly management wanted to rejuvenate the karate kid persona that helped Lyoto make a name for himself when he was signed for a shot at the 205 LBS title after just one win since he lost the belt. Then-champion Jon Jones followed the formula and it took one clean punch to set up the choke that “Bones” Jones used to retain the championship.
Eventually, Machida moved to middleweight in an attempt to start a new chapter. A pair of wins at 185 LBS garnered him a title opportunity, but the then-champion Chris Weidman won via unanimous decision in 2014. He rebounded with a win against CB Dollaway before he lost two bouts against Yoel Romero and Luke Rockhold. He was scheduled to fight Dan Henderson in a rematch from their 2013 contest, but Machida admitted to taking a banned substance, which resulted in the previously mentioned steroid suspension.
At 39, Lyoto Machida is undoubtedly at the latter stages of his career, and the year and a half on the sidelines took away much of his name value. Considering that he is on a three fight skid and he hasn’t won a bout in almost three years, is there a realistic place for him in the sport? Very few fighters remain competitive at the age of 40, and retirement might be the next step for him.
While Lyoto Machida had a solid run, the totality of his career is somewhat underwhelming because for a brief period, the “Machida puzzle” seemed as though it would lead to long term success. It would be unfair to say that Lyoto underachieved, but it’s certainly disappointing that he spent what could be the final two years of his MMA career outside of the cage because of a steroid suspension instead of a better conclusion to his career.
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