It is a law of nature that in fighting, the young eventually oust the old. Whether that be a young buck thrashing a long-reigning patriarch, an old boxer’s chin failing him, or an adolescent lion triumphing over the male that once drove him from his pride; the law holds true no matter how strong or magnificent the old fighter.
Last night, the main and co-main event were eerie echoes of each other. Lyoto Machida and Demian Maia, the two Brazilian fan favorites, lost in brutal fashion to young guns in their division. Both men are proud examples of what may be a vanishing tradition, the traditional martial artist who understands both force and ethical restraint. Maia has said explicitly his goal is to win while hurting his opponent as little as possible. Machida has refrained from delivering that last, unnecessary kill shot mixed martial artists are so infamous for. Neither man is willing to stoop to insulting their opponent with cheap shots. They both remain almost maddeningly respectful in a sport increasingly defined by brash stereotypes and loud talkers.
Machida was the Karate Kid himself, Ryu in real life. When he emerged on the scene, his fighting style was like no other in MMA. He actually used his karate, timing sen no sen and deai, variants of his same-time counters, with elite timing and devastating effect. He knocked out Rashad Evans to become the undefeated champion, the pinnacle of his career, only to run into the overhand of Shogun Rua. The Machida era never fully materialized, but Lyoto gave us a whole different flavor of martial artist. He ended Randy Couture’s career with the first jumping front kick KO- the original Karate Kid kick. He was the first to hit Jon Jones with anything significant, taking an unprecedented round off the champion, before falling to Jones’ ground and pound and brutal guillotine. He went to war with Chris Weidman in the Weidman’s heyday, an awesome fight; he broke ribs with body kicks and gave karate writers thinkpieces with his “woodchipper” knockouts. Long before his UFC career, he fought BJ Penn to a decision and knocked out Rich Franklin in a ring.
He was also infamous for the occasional boring decision. Content to wait and let the fight come to him, he had a number of snoozefests as a result. This is yet another trait he shared in common with Demian Maia.
Maia was also a limited fighter, but in a completely different way. He was a throwback to the original MMA style, a straight Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) man. His game was astonishingly straightforward: take his man down, advance position, and lock in a submission, usually a rear-naked choke. When it worked, it was amazing; when it didn’t, fans were usually in for a frustrating display. His middleweight title fight against Anderson Silva was one of the latter. He had just thrown and choked out Chael Sonnen in (what else) a triangle, but Silva spent five rounds staying as far from Maia as possible, side kicking his leg and jogging away. Maia dropped to welterweight and began his journey anew.
At welterweight, his style worked so many times that you began to wonder if anyone could beat him. After going through a phase in the middle of his career where he tried to learn striking, he had gone back to his strengths, the basics. Seven wins in a row were the result, the best streak in the division. He gave Iceland’s grappling wizard Gunnar Nelson a free lesson in positional mastery; he pulled Matt Brown on top of him into mount and still got to a dominant position; he choked out Carlos Condit without breaking a sweat. When he faced the champion Tyron Woodley, it was not to be enough; Woodley just stood there and deadlegged out whenever Maia got in on his preferred single-leg. It was another frustrating title fight.
Saturday night, for the first time in 33 fights, Maia elected to go out on his shield. He came out swinging, blasting Colby Covington in the pocket. For a round they went hammer and tong, and Maia actually won it, busting Covington’s face up. The next round, Covington stuffed all of Maia’s takedown attempts, and the third round, he bloodied an increasingly exhausted Maia. At 39, Maia had done all he could to best 29-year-old, but nothing could bridge that decade gap in stamina. The fight ended with Maia, face covered in blood, on the canvas while Covington circled the Octagon triumphantly to complete silence from Brazilian fans.
Machida also went out on his shield, but not in a war. Brunson timed one of his left hands and launched two huge lefts of his own that put Machida down. He slept “the Dragon” in the first round. It was another bitter moment for Brazilian fans; age had caught up to two of their stars.
That is how it goes in fighting. The young eat the old. Brunson and Covington are in the prime of their athletic lives; two 39-year-olds, though brilliant martial artists, couldn’t beat them. This isn’t a kung-fu movie. Nonetheless, we the fans thank them for the memories they have given us over the years. No one gets out of this sport unscathed, and the ones who do come back after a couple years. We can only hope our heroes know when it’s time to hang them up and go train katas on a far-off beach, or spend their days doing seminars to promote their Jiu-Jitsu DVDs.