History in the Making: Lyoto Machida Era begins with a bang at UFC 98 against Rashad Evans

He's elusive and unorthodox, but devastatingly effective.

Lyoto Machida used his unique blend of Shotokan karate and Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) to wreak gameplan havoc on the light heavyweight division. Nonetheless, he was criticized for not finishing his first three fights inside the Octagon, and then taking a decision over Tito Ortiz.

That all ended, however, when "The Dragon" put Thiago Silva to sleep at UFC 94 in early 2009. He then put the exclamation point on it when he turned off Rashad Evans' lights at UFC 98 to become the undefeated 205-pound champion.

Machida fell in tough times in 2010, losing back-to-back fights for the first time ever in his professional mixed martial arts career. Now he's out to turn it all around later this month at UFC 129: "St-Pierre vs Shields."

In the weeks leading up to the major pay-per-view (PPV) event, I'll take a look at the six men in the highest profile fights. The two title fights atop the card, as well as the 205-pound clash between UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture and his opponent, and our subject today, fellow former light heavyweight champion, Lyoto Machida. 

Despite his stellar status, Machida is in a rut. And a third loss in three weeks (April 30, 2011) might mean his best days competing inside the Octagon are in the rear-view mirror.

Can Machida reclaim his past glory? Or will the power struggle atop the 205-pound weight class claim yet another victim?

If recent history is any indication, Machida still has a lot to offer:

When Lyoto Machida made his Octagon debut at UFC 67, the excitement of a talented fighter joining the UFC ranks was lost in the Quinton Jackson shuffle. "Rampage" was also making his debut that night, both fighters being transfers from Zuffa's purchase of the World Fighting Alliance promotion.

Machida won that fight, and his next two, by unanimous decision. He easily controlled the pace of each bout and gave his opponents fits as none of them could manage to get their hands on the elusive Brazilian.

His fourth UFC fight was against the insanely hyped up Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou, who was coming off knockouts over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Ricardo Arona in the Pride FC heyday.

Machida choked him out within 10 minutes.

Up next for the crafty karate expert was a bout at UFC 84 against Tito Ortiz. In a night of great fights, this might have been the most exciting. Not unlike "The Dragon's" previous opponents, Ortiz found himself unable to score any significant offense. Ortiz has never been known for his striking, but his bread-and-butter, his wrestling, was also ineffective.

Machida was coasting to another dominant decision victory when he landed a knee to Ortiz's body that would have wrecked any normal person's internal workings. "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy" collapsed to the mat with Machida in hot pursuit. The Brazilian smelled blood but in his haste, compromised his defenses and Ortiz was able to slap on a triangle choke. 

Machida survived the last-minute scare and even said later that he was close to blacking out. We knew he had the talent. And now we knew he had the heart.

Then at UFC 94, Machida showed everyone that he had power in his fists when he knocked out fellow Brazilian Thiago Silva. Technique, heart, and power? That makes for a lethal combination and it never looked more deadly than at UFC 98 when "The Dragon" forced Rashad Evans' brain to reboot.

Let's take a look at the fight.

Evans spends the early moments of the first round dancing along the outside of the cage, hesitant to engage. Machida, save for a single leg kick, hasn't thrown a strike either. Neither fighter wants to make the first mistake when there's so much on the line.

"The Dragon" throws a headkick that Evans blocks, but it staggers him back a bit. Machida lands a nice kick to the body and when Evans answers back with one of his own, the Brazilian attempts to kick out Evans' other leg, a tactic he has used in the past.

The next exchange perfectly embodies what is so intriguing (for the fans) and frustrating (for opponents) about Machida's style. He whips his left leg around and slams it into Evans' ribs and immediately comes over the top with a straight left that catches the champ on the chin and drops him.

Evans is able to survive the ensuing swarm, but he's had a taste of "The Dragon's" power. This is no point fighter the champion is dealing with ... Machida is looking for a knockout.

The second round starts and both fighters circle. A minute in, Machida clinches up with his opponent with a body lock and attempts a takedown. No such luck and the two are back to square one. 

The champ throws a lazy punch and Machida immediately capitalizes. He rushes Evans throwing three straights and a hook while moving his own body and head to avoid the punches his opponent is throwing. To his credit, Evans does land a hook in the exchange and Machida backs away.

Halfway through the second round and again, each fighter is hesitant to commit. Evans lands a kick to the body, but has been mostly whiffing the air with his strikes. A minute later, it all comes crashing down for the champion. 

Machida counters a left from Evans and throws one of his own. It connects cleanly on the Greg Jackson fighter's chin and he drops to a knee, but immediately bounces back up. The Brazilian misses with an uppercut, but a huge hook barrels its way to Evans' jaw and his legs give out.

The crowd begins to roar. Evans is hurt, Machida is looking to finish him off. The champion's fight survival instincts kick in and he tries to wrap his arms around his opponent's leg in hopes of a takedown but "The Dragon" keeps his lower limbs sprawled out as he lands blow after blow.

Evan is able to scramble back to his feet, but he is looking worse for wear. Machida continues to pounce like a hyena on a zebra's carcass. He presses the American against the cage and lands a devastating right hook and follows it with a left that hits the champion right on the button. 

Evans falls down and back, in a near-lifeless heap onto the mat. His eyes are closed and his breathing is quick and shallow. It's a disgusting thing of beauty.

After the fight, Joe Rogan declared:

"Welcome to the Machida Era."

A controversial win over Mauricio Rua and a knockout loss to "Shogun" later in their instant rematch and that bold statement seems silly now ... or at the very least, premature.

But that night, seeing a battered and bruised Evans being helped from the cage and a beaming, victorious Machida standing front and center with the championship belt around his waist, it didn't seem so far-fetched.

After the pair of fights with Rua, "The Dragon" was booked against his fellow UFC 67 debutante Quinton Jackson at UFC 123 where he dropped a controversial decision. Losing was not familiar to Machida. And now he's sitting on two consecutive losses and a potential pink slip.

MMA is a roller coaster. A reality not lost on his 47-year-old opponent, Randy Couture, whose career has had more ups-and-downs than the "Cyclone" at Astroland.

Machida needs to keep his hands up, revisit his roots and rely on the tools that led to him to success. While his era might be over, he certainly is not.

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