UFC 104's main event has caused a lot of interest among fans as possibly being a bout in which the perceived invincible force that is Lyoto "The Dragon" Machida (15-0, 7-0 UFC) could meet his match across the cage in former PRIDE fighter Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (18-3). The bout will mark Machida's first defense of his light heavyweight crown after defeating Rashad Evans at UFC 98. Rua enters the bout after knocking out UFC legend Chuck Liddell at UFC 97 and defeating Mark Coleman in a lackluster effort at UFC 93. Despite the loss to Forrest Griffin in his UFC debut and the conditioning issues at UFC 93 against Coleman, the hype surrounding Rua suggests that he may very well be back to form for this fight.
There are a number of debates among fans regarding how this fight will go down. A lot of fans feel that Rua's best shot at defeating Machida is by working the ground game, something that Rua has proven to be one of his more technical assets in his skill-set. While he hasn't used it extensively in his career to finish fights, he has shown that he's definitely one of the better grapplers in the light heavyweight division. In watching him from a technical standpoint, Rua's jiu-jitsu could give Machida some significant problems on the ground, but we haven't actually answered the question as to whether Machida is vulnerable on the floor against a great grappler.
Other fans believe the clinch is the key to defeating "The Dragon", and I wouldn't be in total disagreement with that assessment. Rua's clinch game in PRIDE was his bread and butter to devastating opponents. The famed Chute Box Academy that brought Rua into the sport as an aggressive, dominating force to be reckoned with was easily one of the largest influences on his Muay Thai clinch game, and it's bred other dominating monsters like Wanderlei Silva. Many fans feel aggression is the only way to beat Machida, but a reserved aggression may ultimately be the Achilles' Heel for Machida. Unlike Thiago Silva, who came at Machida with wild, aggressive punching, it may be beneficial for Rua to wade into the clinch, and then unleash the fury of his aggressive style while putting Machida in the plum.
I find both strategies tough to swallow though. Machida is going to be very tough to put on the ground with his Shotokan stance, patience, and evasion techniques, and the clinch hasn't been a place in which opponents have easily latched onto him. While I don't think Rua will succumb to Sumo trips against the fence, I think Machida has the strength to push off Rua's advances toward a clinch game.
Ultimately, that leaves Rua's striking game as his sole means to ending this fight. Some fans will tell you an exaggerated story of Rua's technical prowess in the striking game, but all the tape in the world won't confirm their beliefs. While he was an effective striker in PRIDE due to his aggression and overwhelming pressure, Rua didn't display on overly technical striking game at any point. In some fights, he would show the abilities to outstrike opponents with intellect, but in a battle with Machida.. he's easily at a disadvantage.
Machida's ability to parry attacks while simultaneously throwing the counter is unparalleled in any division in this sport. It's nearly unstoppable due to the sheer speed at which the movements happen, and the only real counter to such a skill is to throw in combinations with accuracy. Throwing combinations and keeping Machida on the backpedal can easily stop him from countering with shots, but Machida has shown the ability to slip punches through his opponents' defenses despite those comibinations. Thiago Silva was the perfect example, but Rua will easily be a much better striker along with knowing what Machida's strengths are coming into the fight.
Despite what many fans project in their opinions, the Machida-era has not yet begun. There are still some questions remaining that he has yet to answer. His ground game hasn't been truly tested, and Rua's takedowns and tactics could pose a threat. He has yet to be bullied in the clinch, and we haven't seen him tested in terms of recovery like that of the Fedor-Fujita incident. Will we ever see those tests? We may not. He may be that dominating and invincible as everyone would like to think he is.
I'm a bit of a biased participant in this preview, but I can give Rua a fair shake at the possibility of winning this fight. If he can put Machida on his back, anything is possible as his Brazilian jiu-jitsu credentials speak for themselves. In the clinch, I'm highly hesitant to believe Rua can push Machida around in the plum, but it's also a possibility. I'd like to see both possibilities play themselves out in order to test "The Dragon", but I think it'll ultimately come down to Machida's quick strikes and strategy that will win him this fight.