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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Fight Night 119’s Lyoto Machida

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Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Light Heavyweight roost-ruler, Lyoto Machida, will make his return to the cage opposite hard-hitting wrestler, Derek Brunson, this Saturday (Oct. 28, 2017) at UFC Fight Night 119 inside Ginásio do Ibirapuera in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

It’s been a little more than two years since Machida last competed inside the Octagon. A big portion of that came from an odd USADA suspension, in which Machida admitted to taking a substance banned by the organization. In the following examination of all the data, we learned that 7-Keto-DHEA — the substance in question — doesn’t do all that much ... and it also wasn’t listed as illegal on the Brazilian USADA site.

Honesty isn’t always the best policy apparently.

Now, Machida is forced to return from a pair of losses after two years away at nearly 40 years of age. It’s unclear how he’ll perform, but we can always talk about the brilliant technique he’s shown previously!

Let’s take a look at Machida’s skill set:

Striking

From the beginning, Machida’s approach to striking in mixed martial arts (MMA) has largely been the same. The life-long Karateka would maintain plenty of range, pepper his opponents with kicks, surprise them with blitz punches, and look for the big counter punch if his foes attacked sloppily.

Over the years, that’s all remained true, Machida has just grown better at it all and developed new nuances to his attack.

A big part of Machida's game relies on his ability to avoid exchanges. He likes to stand well outside his opponent's boxing range, baiting him into reaching strikes. Thanks to his footwork and feints, Machida is able to keep himself from being walked into the fence by all but the best pressure fighters. By keeping such a large amount of distance, Machida is able to anticipate both takedowns and punches and has plenty of time to react. It’s also a matter of discipline, as Machida will not be drawn out of his game, while his opponents grow frustrated quickly and play into his hands often enough.

While staying far from combinations, Machida looks to land heavy kicks between his feints. This is perhaps the most recently improved area of Machida’s game, as he’s increased his aggression significantly. At Light Heavyweight, Machida scored just one finish via kick in 11 fights — the admittedly bad ass crane kick of an admittedly very old Randy Couture (GIF) — whereas two of his four victories at 185 pounds have come directly from a single kick.

This part of Machida’s game works so well in large part because few men can kick with him. He mixes up his kicks well, attacking with both round kicks, front kicks and snap kicks. Beyond simple diversity of techniques, Machida can feint with his hips better than most, showing one kick before attacking with another and generally playing with his foe’s expectations. Plus, he’s a Southpaw, so he’s normally kicking to the open side of his opponent’s guard.

At Middleweight, Machida has been very successful at simply slamming hard kicks into his opponent as well. His brutal knockout of Mark Munoz came after a couple left kicks to the body before going high with the fight-finisher. Machida found similar success opposite Gegard Mousasi, setting up his high kicks with little more than body kicks and some hand-fighting (GIF).

It’s a such viable strategy in large part because that body kick hurts so much and forces his foe to block it. It doesn’t matter whether Machida is slamming his shin or toes into the liver, it’s going to register as a significant impact (GIF).

In addition, Machida makes good use of the front kick. His straight-up-the-middle kicks works well in alongside the round kicks, coming up between his opponent's guard rather than around it. Plus, it works well against wrestlers looking to drag him to the mat by taking advantage of their hunched posture (GIF).

Another big part of Machida's game is his burst combinations of straight punches. Since he spends most of his time circling, feinting, and throwing kicks, Machida is able to surprise his opponents with rapid fire combinations. After landing his blitz, Machida will return to his movement and general evasiveness.

When Machida's opponent attempts to take a shot without closing the distance, he runs the risk of shooting directly into a step knee to the mid-section. Machida is excellent at timing the knee as his opponent moves forward, which ensures it lands with power. Usually, Machida throws the strike as his opponent reaches for the clinch or covers up to avoid strikes, leaving their liver open (GIF).

Machida loves to use his left cross as a counter. If his opponent attacks with some form of measured aggression, a common reaction from Machida is to hop to his left, past his foe’s power side. This opens up Machida’s own power shot from a difficult angle to block (GIF).

With closing distance technically such a difficult approach and wrestling at range nearly impossible, many fighters have found themselves in a difficult position opposite Machida. Ultimately, some are forced to decide between hanging at range and eating kicks or to risk it all and lunge in with a big shot.

Against the average fighter, you would probably be better off swinging hard and hoping for the best. Opposite "The Dragon," that’s a very dangerous proposition. His timing is excellent, which allows Machida to plant and fire off a straight left, a strike which is made more powerful as his foe runs into it (GIF).

Of course, no style is without flaws, and the downsides of Machida's karate style have been clearly exposed at this point. As Machida backs off from exchanges, one of his legs is often left behind, and his stance leaves him in poor position to defend low kicks. “Shogun” Rua most famously exploited this by backing Machida up and ripping into the leg, slowing the Karateka down and leaving him more vulnerable. If he's exhausted or immobile, his ability to move away from punches deteriorates greatly, and suddenly all that distance control goes out the window.

Wrestling

Machida's method of dragging his opponent to the mat is also fairly unique. He has wrestling experience from both Sumo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, as well as some trips coming from karate.

Machida is able to transition from strikes to trips very smoothly. It’s second nature for him to stick out his foot for a quick sweep or step across the body for a trip. In one smooth example, Machida sprung forward with a combination that saw Thiago Silva cover up, allowing Machida to quickly frame him and land an outside trip (GIF).

In another cool example that is simple in theory and difficult in execution, “The Dragon” foot swept B.J. Penn. Penn was advancing slowly, so Machida took advantage of his Southpaw stance to block the outside of the lead foot. With that post blocked, Machida pretty much stiff armed Penn and knocked him to the mat (GIF).

Machida will also use more traditional clinch takedowns as well. If he can secure a body lock, Machida is very strong with his throws. This likely comes from his Sumo background, which involves plenty of pushing and pull from in close. Despite this solid takedown ability, Machida has little interest in working from the clinch. It's very common for him to attempt to break the clinch attempt by attacking with quick trips. If his opponent falls to the mat, great, but more often than not, Machida simply off-balances his opponent enough to break away.

Machida is an above-average wrestler, but it's really his distance control that makes him so difficult to take down. Since getting close to Machida is a seriously difficult task, most opponents attempt to shoot from way too far out. If they're lucky enough that Machida doesn't run them directly into a step knee to the body, he'll still easily sprawl out on their shot.

Furthermore, looking to clinch with Machida is also a difficult challenge. Even if his opponent is able to secure an underhook, Machida does a very good job dropping down and getting his hips away from his opponent, preventing the body lock and any takedowns that could come from it.

Of all Machida’s recent opponents, the only one who had actual consistent wrestling success was Chris Weidman. Weidman is definitely a seriously great wrestler, but his success also came from the fact that he was able to trap Machida along the fence and set up his shots better than perhaps anyone else.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

A long-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt with little interest in taking the fight to the mat, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Machida only has two professional submissions with the most recent coming nearly a decade ago. Defensively, Machida has never been submitted easily, only being forced to tap by a pair of the best MMA grapplers in history — Jon Jones and Luke Rockhold — and both did damage to Machida before succeeding in locking up a choke.

Despite the lack of submissions, Machida has shown some crafty jiu-jitsu. It’s actually the topic of this week’s technique highlight, as Machida will use submission attempts from his back to return to his feet.

Conclusion

When Machida last left the Octagon, he was an aging Top 5-ranked fighter on a losing streak. Questions were already being asked on whether or not Machida was still an elite athlete, and two years away from the cage does little to assuage those concerns. In other words, this is a make-or-break moment for Machida in terms of being a Top 10 athlete ... and it is against a tough opponent. Indeed, the stakes are high for “The Dragon.”

*****

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur champion who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.