Rashad Evans didn't have a clue what he was up against when he stepped into the cage against challenger Lyoto Machida at UFC 98. In every interview in the lead-up to the title showdown, Evans was confident, indicating that he would expose Machida to the world and prove his championship status. Unfortunately, Machida was too much. Evans looked completely out his element, and the brutal counter-punching and speed of Machida overwhelmed Evans within two rounds' time.
Fast forward to next Saturday, and you'll find Lyoto Machida in a very different situation. No longer considered the dominant force who was once invincible atop the UFC's light heavyweight division, Machida is eying a resurrection after losing the title to Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua at UFC 113 in May and dropping a split decision to Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson at UFC 123. While there is some controversy surrounding the latter outcome, it doesn't change the fact that Machida has, in fact, been solved.
The idea that a fighter can fight for ten plus years with an unblemished record at the highest level of the sport is an impossibility in this era. Some fans knew that, others hoped it could be true. Like any sports fan, there is a desire to see incredibly gifted athletes rise above the rest of the pack, a pack of athletes who happen to be competing at the highest level as well. Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady, Wayne Gretzky... all excelled in the face of the best opposition in the world.
Obviously, greatness in team sports relies on individuals bringing an entire team to a better place. Jordan, James, and Bryant could single-handedly win games themselves, and Tom Brady commands a position that has an enormous impact on his team winning or losing. Gretzky could take a game over by either scoring or using exceptional vision to get the puck to his teammates. Woods is the exception as he excels in an individual sport, a concept that is shared in mixed martial arts.
But even the great Tiger Woods loses in golf, obviously because golf has intricacies that may not be as rudimentary as what fighting involves. But fighting has evolved to that level, and fans may still be stuck in the infant era of mixed martial arts, believing there is a fighter who can encompass all the martial arts and blast his way through the ranks. Fedor Emelianenko was that man for years. In yesterday's sport, not everyone in the upper-echelon was great. Today, there are long lists of great fighters in every single division.
The common criticism of Fedor Emelianenko is that he was the very best in an era of not-so-great mixed martial artists. Analysts talked about how Fedor was the first martial artist to truly possess great skills in all areas of the sport. On the ground or on the feet, Fedor's quickness, power, and speedy transition game were unparalleled in the sport. Today, time and the evolution of the sport have made him appear mortal.
Fedor may have been the grandfather who spoiled us when we were little boys and girls, bringing us presents during every visit while our parents scoffed and said, "Dad, you're going to spoil them!". It's a new era, and even perceived destroyers like Jon Jones will fall eventually. Fedor represented a fighter that fans could rely on, without any doubt, to win and win in spectacular fashion. That mentality was prevalent in the lead-up to his battle with Fabricio Werdum and Antonio Silva. I would know, my own thoughts were blinded by those visions of grandeur.
I don't claim to be an objective bystander. I'm a fan just like you. I have my favorites, and I've have my absurd tendencies to believe specific things about fighters even when I believe deep down such a thing will never happen. Lyoto Machida was a fighter I thought would sit atop the UFC's light heavyweight division for a lengthy period of time. I've never bought into the idea that a single fighter could destroy everyone put in front of them, but I figured Machida could elusively dance around a cage for a number of years and continue to win. I was wrong.
What we will see more of in the future is what Lyoto Machida faces next Saturday, bouts that have huge importance to the careers of fighters who were once considered consummate fighters in all areas of the sport, only to be humbled as the hype reached the highest levels. Jon Jones will hit that roadblock at some point in his career, just like many before him. The question is whether these fighters can persevere through the hard times and prevail. That will become the new standard.