Coveted Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) gold will be on the line tonight (July 5, 2014) when middleweight champion Chris Weidman meets Lyoto Machida in the main event of UFC 175, airing live on pay-per-view (PPV) at 10 p.m. EST from Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Weidman comes into the bout off possibly the most action-packed 12 months in mixed martial arts (MMA) history. After having shoulder surgery and losing his house to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Weidman returned to the Octagon in July 2013, infamously shocking the world with a second round knockout of all-time great Anderson Silva.
He defended the belt against "The Spider" at UFC 168 in December 2013, but a shadow of doubt was cast upon his victory. Silva sustained a gruesome broken leg throwing a low kick in the second round, requiring surgery and giving Weidman a second (and more anticlimactic) win.
The champ was promptly scheduled to face Vitor Belfort at UFC 173, but "The Phenom" was forced out after the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) banned the controversial testosterone-replacement therapy (TRT) in late February. In stepped Machida, but the complications didn't stop there.
Weidman then opted to have arthroscopic surgery on both of his knees to clear up some nagging issues that had been plaguing him since high school, but he returned rather quickly to participate in UFC 175.
Meanwhile, it's been business as usual for No. 3-ranked former light heavyweight champion Machida, who was last seen picking apart former Strikeforce champion Gegard Mousasi in the main event of UFC Fight Night 36. Before that, "The Dragon" made his 185-pound debut by starching friend and former training partner Mark Munoz with a vicious first round head kick at UFC Fight Night 30.
Machida is looking to join BJ Penn and Randy Couture as the only UFC competitors to gain the belt in two weight classes.
There aren't many MMA bouts out there that have more backstory than this one, and that's without any sort of drama or trash talk between the fighters. Let's take a look at the keys to victory for Weidman vs. Machida:
Record: 11-0 overall, 6-0 UFC
Key Wins: Anderson Silva (UFC 168, UFC 162), Mark Munoz (UFC on Fuel TV 4), Demian Maia (UFC on Fox 2)
Key Losses: None
Keys to Victory: Having attained NCAA Division 1 All-American status wrestling at Hofstra University, an East Coast Grappler's Quest title after mere months of Brazilian jiu-jitsu training, and a knockout over arguably the greatest champion the sport has ever seen in Silva, Weidman has become of the most well rounded fighters in the game today.
His wrestling will always be his base. He's had tremendous success with it in nearly all of his UFC bouts, even taking down noted mat technician Munoz with ease. But that skillset will be put to the test against Machida, an unorthodox grappler who maintains excellent takedown defense thanks to his Sumo wrestling base.
That doesn't necessarily mean that Weidman won't be looking for some takedowns; he probably will. However, his powerful stand-up game has actually been doing most of his damage as of late. With Machida's powerful karate his main focus, this bout could be decided on the feet.
To navigate the maze that "The Dragon" presents, Weidman will be presented with the tough challenge of simultaneously fighting with a great deal of both aggression and caution. It sounds a bit enigmatic, but so is Machida.
The champion needs to get in Machida's face with authority to do some damage in an effort to avoid any counter shots. Machida has only been finished by strikes once, but Weidman thinks he can knock out any middleweight.
And he just might be able to, but he has to hit Machida first.
It's probable that he'll get nailed with a decent amount of punches coming in, but that's to be expected. Weidman's chin has never been in trouble in the Octagon, yet he's really never been hit flush. He has to stay focused and not leave any openings for Machida to do so.
Weidman is also a huge and powerful middleweight. Machida is used to dealing with bigger fighters, but if Weidman gains top position on the ground, it could be the beginning of the end for "The Dragon."
Record: 21-4 overall, 13-4 UFC
Key Wins: Rashad Evans (UFC 98), Gegard Mousasi (UFC Fight Night 36), Mark Munoz (UFC Fight Night 30), Randy Couture (UFC 129), Dan Henderson (UFC 157), Tito Ortiz (UFC 84)
Key Losses: Phil Davis (UFC 163), Jon Jones (UFC 140), Quinton Jackson (UFC 123), Mauricio Rua (UFC 113)
Keys to Victory: As usual, Machida is going to fight with his patient style in an effort to catch Weidman overcommitting and nail him with a huge counter combination. His kicks have also looked amazing since his move down to middleweight, and he's underrated in terms of wrestling and submissions.
Despite his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, he probably doesn't want to go to the mat with a beast like Weidman. Instead, he'll look to utilize a diverse array of pinpoint strikes to pick apart Weidman while looking for a finish.
If he can do so, he'll become the first man to really threaten the champion, so he's got his work cut out for him. Many think that Machida has the style tailor-made to defeat Weidman, and indeed he's been defeating top-level wrestlers for years.
But he's also fought too tentatively against them as well, resulting in close decisions that didn't always go in his favor. His bouts with Davis and Jackson are perfect examples of this, so he has to push the pace in an effort to make an impression in Las Vegas.
He's looked a lot more aggressive at middleweight, and he could come out and surprise Weidman by pushing the pace. Machida is a very elusive fighter, and his excellent footwork, speed, and angles will most likely provide the toughest bout of Weidman's relatively young career.
Overall, if Machida can keep this fight standing and avoid Weidman's big power shots, he'll begin to tip the scales in his favor. If it turns into a grinding wrestling match, he could be in trouble.
Bottom Line From Las Vegas: The bottom line for this fight is that we're going to find out just how elite Weidman truly is. Although Silva may go down as the best fighter in MMA history, he just didn't seem like he wanted to fight for the belt anymore at UFC 162, and then he broke his leg at UFC 168.
Of course nothing can be taken away from Weidman's brilliance throughout that historic period of transition, but a win over Machida would make his short title run already legendary while silencing his doubters.
For Machida, becoming only the third man to hold a UFC title in two weight classes would be groundbreaking. The fact that he won the belt at 205 pounds is a huge accomplish in hindsight; now he appears all the more dangerous at 185 pounds.
However, Weidman is as big and powerful as most light heavyweights today, if not more. Dealing with his massive grappling skills will be a bear of a test for Machida, just as figuring out "The Dragon's" puzzling striking will be for Weidman.
Those interesting dynamics make this one of the most alluring and tough to predict bouts of 2014. In a time short on big fights and fighters, UFC needs this showcase bout to deliver in a big way.
Given the truly world-class talent and preparation of both fighters, it would be a big surprise if it did not. It's also going to shape the future of the ultra-talented middleweight division, so enjoy the pivotal championship showdown tonight.
Chris Weidman's run through a gauntlet of legendary MMA talent continues against Lyoto Machida at UFC 175. Will the young champion dispatch "The Dragon" like he did "The Spider?"