There's something unnatural about UFC 129.
Randy Couture reckons his light-heavyweight bout versus former champ Lyoto Machida will be his last. Even though the announcement was littered with ambiguous disclaimers -- such as how he "expects" this to be his retirement affair and doesn't "think" the UFC can lure him back -- this will probably be Couture's swan song.
The legacy began in 1997 when the soft-spoken Greco Roman crossover blew through two opponents in the same night to win the UFC 13 tournament, and then silenced hordes of gi-clad aficionados by snuffing out shooting star Vitor Belfort in his next outing. Plowing through the hostile territory surrounding renowned strikers in order to cruelly molest them in the clinch became Couture's signature style.
Dually coined both "The Natural" and "Captain America", he went into fights with Belfort, Rizzo, Liddell, Gonzaga, and Sylvia as an over-the-hill underdog, but emerged an inspirational hero. Couture is the first to hold UFC gold in 2 weight classes, leads the promotion in number of championship stints (3 at heavy, 2 at light-heavy) and will tie Matt Hughes for having the most appearances (24) in the Octagon at UFC 129.
The fact that Couture is now 47 years old and still competing at the elite level of MMA gives his story a warm, fairy-tale vibe. Shattering the barriers of age in athletics, the highly sought after 18 to 34 year old demographic can gather round the television with both young children and old geezers alike to join hands and cheer for Couture as he batters the inevitable antagonist to a senseless pulp.
This trend makes it rather befitting that the mystical Lyoto Machida and his swirling aura of hocus-pocus will oppose Couture at UFC 129. A bastion of traditional martial arts in progressive combat, Machida's Shotokan karate background shines in his stance, striking, and overall fighting philosophy, representing the veritable antithesis to Couture's more deliberate grab and smash routine.
After the first few UFC events back in the 90's, it was such a trendy knee-slapper to reminisce with our buddies about how we once feared the Kung Fu master at the strip mall dojo down the road, certain that death was only one well placed ridge-hand to the pancreas away. We were all drunk with confidence from our Muay Thai lessons and hopped up after a "Gracies in Action" VHS marathon, finally convinced of the painful truth that Johnny Lawrence would beat Daniel Larusso's ass in a rematch and Mr. Miyagi lacked takedown defense.
In the present day, joined by other TMA pioneers like Katsunori Kikuno, Cung Le, Zelg Galesic, fellow UFC 129 cast member John Makdessi and the oft-neglected Jeff Newton, the success of Lyoto Machida's souped-up karate base has forced us to renege our condemnations. Fueled by a belly full of his own urine, "The Dragon" will vanish into thin air and materialize momentarily to "hi-ya!" the side of your head thrice whilst you shrug to your corner with a dumbfounded look, puzzled as to his ever-changing whereabouts.
Their intentions are simple and clear: Randy wants to throttle him silly like a deranged and underpaid au pair would a wailing infant, and Machida intends to Merengue out of range with leather-to-stubbly-beard being their only physical contact, knowing the judges "worship a lot the takedowns".
A showdown of comic book proportions awaits: the beloved paladin, immune of age, who built his reputation on using a tractor-beam of "Dad Strength" to lure in and mangle his foes with good ol' American wrestling will face the illusory martial artist who became famous for flitting about the cage, untouchable, while counter-striking with esoteric karate tactics.
Behold the lengthy phase-by-phase reconnaissance in the full entry.
Free Movement / Striking Phase
The advantage in striking is quite clearly Machida's, so the focus in this category will hinge more upon the free movement aspect. In fact, the entire outcome of this collision will likely be dictated by cage motion, which is the power-plant of their machines; the heart of both fighter's offense.
Machida's devilishly clever footwork is what allows him to stay out of reach and find vulnerable angles to detonate combinations from. Couture's core competency is locking horns in the clinch, but he has to bridge the gap and cross through striking range to get there. Against past opposition for Couture (especially against slower heavyweights), shucking and jiving through a few punches to restrain them against the fence was as easy as skipping through the forest to grandmas house for a picnic. With Machida, it will be more like walking a balance-beam sized plank that's perched over shark-infested waters.
Since losing the heavyweight strap to Ricco Rodriguez in 2002, being clipped with punches while encroaching accounts for four of Couture's five contemporary losses. Even in the one exception where he lost by decision to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Couture was dropped with a left hand while trading in the pocket.
The go-to move that most of Team Quest employed flawlessly for years was hurling a massive overhand right as a decoy and then immediately scurrying forward to pounce on their stationary opponent when they planted their feet and shelled to absorb the blow. Picture a giant nuclear missile streaking brightly across the cage with a burly and hirsute takedown artist chasing behind it, concealed in its smoky wake, eagerly devouring anyone foolish enough to just cover up and defend the haymaker. Alternatively, Tim Sylvia learned quickly that the initial punch can be just as unwelcoming as the follow up assault if not given the proper attention.
The best defense to this madcap attack? Footwork. Circling. Angles. Unpredictable movement. In a nutshell, everything that makes Lyoto Machida an unusually phenomenal fighter.
It's no coincidence that Chuck Liddell stayed stationary in his first fight with Randy -- a losing effort -- but constantly pivoted, circled, and threw awkward angles and straight punches in the following entries of their trilogy, resulting in two knockouts and Randy's first retirement. Though a long and talented striker who carved Couture up when free from his grasp, Brandon Vera seemed almost too confident in his clinch game and willingly allowed Couture to assume barnacle-form and effectively muffle his offense.
There is quite a distinct correlation to slow or shoddy footwork in every opponent that Couture has recently toppled: Sylvia, Gonzaga, Vera, Coleman,and even James Toney. Toney was the most gifted pure striker Couture has ever fought, but his hideous lack of footwork hampered any chances of threatening on the feet.
Randy has a consistent tendency to throw a weird overhand left hand from a leaning, hunched stance. Even though he's wobbled opponents with it before, these animations indicate that it's somewhat of a pattern; and a pattern is predictability, and predictability is a huge weakness at the top level of MMA.
This bad habit leaves him especially vulnerable when facing a southpaw with quick reactions, the acute ability to trace movement, and a broad range of strikes that includes devastating kicks to the body, which is the general dossier on Machida's racket.
Normally, the conclusion at this point would be that Randy is a tailor-made opponent for Lyoto Machida, who usually annihilates crudely ingressing fighters wielding predictable attacks. Normally, the best way to describe Machida's elaborate footwork and cage motion would be a lengthy theorem of numerical gibberish and symbols written on a chalkboard by an Einstein of Calculus.
The kicker is that Lyoto Machida has not been his "normal" or "usual" self lately.
No matter how bizarre and backwards it seems, Machida's footwork has apparently deteriorated in his last two outings -- which also happened to be the first two losses of his career. Here is more ammunition to support the critical importance of footwork.
Exhibit A: keen timing from Rampage with your basic bull-rush flurry results in the ill-advised straight-line retreat. Even though being reduced to pinpointing a few seconds of vulnerability says a lot in itself, that's all Randy Couture requires to take control of a fight.
Couture is a master of opportunity, and Liddell, Gonzaga, and Vera all paid dearly for making the slightest mistake and tangling up with him just one single time.
Rampage might be one of the strongest and most under-rated clinchers in MMA, but the question is whether Randy could duplicate any of these interactions against Machida, and the answer lies in the intricacy of footwork that Machida employs.
Given Randy's propensity to stand flat-footed and throw his leaning left hand, the body-kick should be one of the main arrows in Machida's quiver. It was a stout blow of the same nature that Vera used to drop Couture, and blocking a nasty high-kick from Gonzaga resulted in the fracturing of an arm.
However, the next visual depicts Machida's left kick to the body and a way Couture could deflect it, drop levels, and grab the body-lock. You can see Machida defends the immediate chance of being thrown, but ends up being ushered to the cage by Rampage. Against Couture, the round will likely expire in this position or with Couture on top, blasting short punches and elbows in either scenario.
Machida also leaps forward with a beautiful straight knee and/or quick straight left hand, which scored on multiple occasions against both Tito Ortiz and Shogun. As with the kicks to the midsection, the strike may find a home, but also lends a vulnerability to becoming enveloped in Couture's ruthless clinch.
Finally, Machida hasn't encountered many strong wrestlers. Really, Ortiz and Rashad Evans are the only true wrestling-based fighters he's faced: they are both freestyle as opposed to Greco Roman, Evans was more content to stand and trade rather than shoot takedowns, and Ortiz's attempts were ten-feet deep and badly telegraphed.
Randy's diversity and intelligence will allow him to snake low at the floor level for ankle picks, fire in a level above from that for traditional singles and doubles, as well as duck under from mid-level to force a clinch and work his specialty from there. Machida's stance generally consists of his upper body cocked back to defend and counter-strike, but that means his lower body is farther forward and may offer a limb for Couture to chew on.
Machida has an undoubted advantage with striking; but it's the battle of footwork that will dictate their offense, and Lyoto must remain unfailing while Couture only needs one mistake to capitalize on.
Where Couture will be in survival mode and looking to bring the fight elsewhere in the free movement phase, the same applies to Machida in the remaining phases of combat. Of course, the former 205-pound champ and Black House fighter is no slouch anywhere, but the reason Randy Couture is a revered idol is because he's an unstoppable battleship in the clinch.
Within the first ten seconds of his 2008 bout with behemoth Brock Lesnar, Couture pinned the leviathan against the cage in the clinch, and did so throughout the contest almost at will.
Let's think about this for a minute. Couture, weighing 220-pounds, against a former NCAA wrestling champion with frightening agility that allegedly tips the scales at 280-pounds on fight night, which equates to an approximate 60-pound difference in weight. That's ... wait for it ... four entire mixed martial arts weight classes apart. Hell, that's like a featherweight fighting Randy Couture, and giving him a run for his money in the clinch.
The size disparity between Couture and Lesnar was laughable, as even a David vs. Goliath comparison wouldn't do it justice, and Lesnar is also shockingly dexterous and agile for his gargantuan size.
The strength, technique, talent, experience, and raw voracity of Randy Couture's clinch game is unparalleled in the sport. "Clinching with Randy Couture" is dead last on every To-Do List that mankind has ever created. Period.
The position unfolds like being helplessly hurled into a blender of endless arms that encircle you; seeking to strangle you, pummel you, and hurt you in any possible way. Merciless manipulation of your every body part occurs, forces endeavoring to twist you in the exact opposite direction and position that biology intends, infinite streams of knuckles, elbows, and knees cascading around you, bouncing off every exposed square inch of your exterior; with Couture's forehead serving as a battering ram, boring directly into your soul, immobilizing you against the fence while he has his way with you.
It is highly recommended that no mammal on earth should endure this unfortunate experience.
Now, there's a very unorthodox and tricky facet of Lyoto's game that makes the clinch difficult to stamp 'all Couture'. It afflicts me with an uncertainty on how the position will unfold versus Randy, but I do know for damn sure that techniques like these are a pleasure to witness.
Like mine, your first instinct might be to conclude that there's no way Machida can execute this tomfoolery against anyone with a strong base like Couture -- until we recall that Sokoudjou and Nakamura are some of the more esteemed and formidable Judokas in MMA.
The common denominator with Machida's mumbo-jumbo in the clinch is that everything stems from a trip, but still, the way he seamlessly integrates this into his combinations is poetic. Penn, Soko, Nakamura, Thiago Silva, and even Ortiz fell into this trap.
Though these crafty and unorthodox practices don't balance the scales altogether, it adds that certain x-factor for Lyoto and shows the wide assortment of skills he brings to the table.
Machida can be offensive in short and cautious sequences, as shown in these images, as long as he never gets trapped in the belly of the whale. Randy would love nothing more than to tie him down to his workshop table and grind away. Machida's composure and training will serve him well here, but the myriad advantages he enjoys as a well rounded fighter rapidly deplete anytime he's in Randy Couture's clutches.
The same theme from above echoes here, and again, not for any glaring faults in Machida's game. Yes, Randy Couture has been submitted, but that was over a decade ago. Sure, Randy Couture has been ground-and-pounded, but that almost a decade ago against two of the beefiest and best UFC heavyweight grapplers in the promotion's history.
The "new-generation" Randy Couture has shown broad knowledge, strong control and sheer brutality on the ground. He was reversed by Big Nog, arguably the best heavyweight submissionist in the game, but can you honestly think of anyone (not named Fedor) that Big Nog hasn't swept? Minotauro gets my vote for the slickest sweeps in the biz.
Just as Machida will err on the side of caution in the free movement phase, Couture will also desperately cling to maintain control on the ground. The only strikes or advancements that will be attempted will be those that offer absolutely no risk of compromising position.
We haven't seen a lot of time clocked with Machida fighting from his back, so there's a bit of a question mark surrounding his gameness against top-competition. We have only small shreds of past performances to use as a frame of reference, and most of those examples consist of Machida blazing heavy punches from the top after he trips or knocks his opponent down. I wouldn't rule out this scenario against Couture, and Machida's hammers from the top are unholy, but I think it's fair to assume that most occurrences on the ground should result in Couture being on top.
It doesn't say much, but at the same time, it also doesn't bode well that Tito Ortiz was able to secure a tight triangle on Machida in the waning moments. Shogun was able to sweep Machida, but Rua's half-guard sweeps are also extraordinary. This is the same gray area where Couture could also catch Machida on the feet -- sure it's possible, and Machida could end up peppering Randy from the top after a surprise throw or sweep, or even a knockdown, but isn't the most likely situation.
Lyoto holds a black belt in BJJ, so there's no question he has a broad range of abilities. Like in the clinching scenario, offense is possible, but escape is more safe and advisable. Keeping his knees high to prevent a pass that leads to Randy's infamous half-guard elbow onslaught, using butterfly guard to keep space and kick Couture's hips away, and staying as active as possible to create scrambles are all tactics that should prohibit Couture from locking him down.
With a Mack-truck base and a vast number of years perfecting his top game, only damage, losing rounds, and other adverse circumstances unravel if Randy Couture can stabilize his adversary on the canvas and seal them in a coffin of elbows and punches.
I think a sweep or even a threatening submission attempt from Machida is very possible, but also his only prayer based on what each fighter has shown in us in the past, and any arguments that Couture doesn't deserve to be favored here are futile.
The betting lines elevate Machida as high as -350. Couture is 47 and admittedly on the verge of retirement. Were it not for Machida's lackluster performances in his last two affairs, I'd consider him a lock even though I give him the nod in only one of the three phases of combat.
Let's not forget that Randy Couture is quite possibly the most celebrated MMA fighter for his knack of shocking the world and pulling off upsets, and both men rose to prominence for their uncanny ability of exploiting their advantages.
If Machida has the same lapses in footwork and strategy that he exhibited against Rampage, I don't know if he has the tools to defend adequately in the clinch or from his back against an opportunist like Randy ... which is why everything hinges on the free movement of both fighters and whether Couture can corner and control Machida.
The chance is always there, and with Randy Couture, the best part is that we'll all be on the edge of our seats waiting for that chance to actualize in the Octagon. While I would never write him off entirely (who could?), the odds definitely favor Machida pedaling away on his bicycle while dotting the pursuing Couture with strikes.
The age-old equation of a striker being susceptible to the takedown whenever he plants his feet will always be at play, but I expect Machida to place caution over aggression and resist three-consecutive losses at all costs.
My prediction: Machida by decision