In case my title is too subtle, let me make things clear right now: I love Lyoto Machida. He is a master mixed martial artist of the highest order. On a normal UFC fight week I do a Judo Chop for each of the main event fighters, and I'll be covering both Jose Aldo and the Korean Zombie tomorrow, but there's no way I can resist breaking down the style of the man who single-handedly made a whole generation of MMA fans rethink their stance on traditional martial arts by gyaku-zuki-ing his way straight to a Light Heavyweight title. For my part, I don't care who the Dragon is matched up with, whether it improves the division or not. I'm just happy to watch him fight.
Lyoto has been the subject of plenty of breakdowns before, so I'm going to avoid running through the same techniques that plenty of others have analyzed. I'm going to focus more on the subtleties and intangibles of Lyoto's game: his stance, his angles, and his strategies.
Lyoto's stance is unique. Very few fighters stand the way he does nowadays, even in boxing, but his stance bears a striking (ha-ha) resemblance to those of boxers from the early twentieth century. Here is a still of Lyoto compared with boxing great George Dixon (who not only won the world bantamweight title in 1888, but purportedly invented shadowboxing--there's a video of Dixon fighting here, if you're interested).
In a stunning fit of analysis during Machida's 2009 title fight with Rashad Evans, Mike Goldberg was heard to say, "[Machida] gets his legs set but then he leans back and makes himself even a tougher target, just the way that head is further back than the rest of the body." And that's the key. Machida's stance, like the stance of George Dixon, is all about distance control. It's simple math, really. As a result of his rear-weighted stance, with the head over his back foot, Lyoto's opponents must cover more distance with their attacks to strike his head. More distance traveled means more time for Machida to see the strike and react accordingly. As a counter striker, that little bit of extra time and distance can be critical, and the results look something like this: GIF
In addition, Machida can initiate offense more safely by maintaining his stance as he enters range. The first thing to enter range is his lead foot, followed by his hips, followed by his head. By testing the water with his lower body first, Lyoto is able to maintain the critical distance between his opponent's hands and his face even while entering range.
The head being the defensive priority does, however, sometimes leave the Dragon open to body and leg attacks. The lower body enters range first, and it also exits range last, hence Machida's UFC 104 performance against Shogun Rua in which the challenger, while rarely finding Lyoto's head, was able to land numerous kicks to his torso and legs throughout the fight (GIF1, GIF2). Even Dan Henderson nearly stole a decision over Machida with little more than several dozen geriatric leg kicks.
For more on the virtues of a back-weighted stance, check out my Bloody Basics piece on the matter. As for Lyoto, let's talk about one of his greatest strengths: his understanding of angles.
This is one of those words that gets thrown around frequently by commentators, but the concept is rarely explained. Simply put, the use of angles allow you to hit your opponent without him being able to hit you back. An advantageous angle is a precious thing, which is why many high-level striking matches begin with a long period of "feeling out," in which the two fighters jockey with one another for subtle changes in position, and consequently many high-level strikers are called "boring" by casual fans.
The expert use of angles is a beautiful thing, however, and I encourage you to study the footwork of men such as Lyoto Machida. The following sequence is a shining example of how a small difference in angle can make a massive difference. Check out the GIF, too.
1. Machida has his lead side pointed at the center line of Thiago Silva.
2. Thiago, thinking he has the advantageous angle, throws a straight right. Lyoto hop-steps back and to his left.
3. Having secured an inside angle, Lyoto throws a left hand that gets blocked.
4. Thiago attempts to counter with a stepping left kick, but Machida throws a shift punch, stepping through with his left foot as he throws a right straight that drops Silva.
A sequence like this is all about the angles. A small step to his left at the right time, and Lyoto finds himself in a position to strike Thiago without being struck in return. The straight left to shift punch is a favorite combination of Lyoto's (he also throws it against Randy Couture, once again failing to connect with the left but landing the right as he steps: GIF). The step-through with the rear leg adds a further angle, as well as allowing Lyoto to throw a powerful straight right without overextending himself.
Machida's angles also allow him to utilize his tremendous footsweeps, techniques that I feared he was drifting away from for some time until his spectacular takedown of Dan Henderson (GIF). Angles are key to the success of many footsweeps, trips, and blocks. At any given moment, a person has a strong plane, and a weak one. A strong plane is one in which you are difficult to knock over, such as when you have one foot facing the opponent, and the other foot supporting your weight from behind. A weak plane is one in which you are easy to knock over. Observe how Machida uses his footwork and angles to take advantage of this concept.
1. Machida circles to his left. In this still, you can see Thiago committing to a big forward step as he attempts to chase him down--exactly what Machida was waiting for.
2. He throws a lightning quick straight left while stepping off-line.
3. As his punch lands, Lyoto enters a clinch with Thiago. He has a left underhook, and a shallow right overhook. Thiago's weak plane is indicated with a white line. Machida begins to lift with his underhook and drive Thiago against this weak plane.
4. In order for this plane to be strong, Thiago would have to step his left foot back, in essence posting on his left leg to keep from falling backward to the left. But Machida hooks Silva's left leg with his right leg, pulling as he continues to lift and push Thiago's upper body. This results in a rapid and irreversible fall for Thiago.
Machida's style is centered on his ability to position himself relative to his opponents. Though he is smaller, slower, and less powerful than some of his opponents, his understanding of angles allows him to pick them apart comfortably, or throw them to the canvas with ease.
Joe Rogan once remarked during a Machida fight, "it's as if guys can't resist chasing him." I'd say he was right. So many of Machida's opponents have fallen prey to his superb gameplanning, or else been defeated by their own lack of tactical planning. Thiago Silva chased Machida down, and Rashad Evans tried to out-counter him with pure speed. Ryan Bader and Dan Henderson attempted to throw bombs from range. All but one of these men ended up unconscious on the canvas for their efforts.
Machida's staple techniques--the gyaku-zuki and the stepping left knee--both rely on his opponents stepping in after him. But where some fighters simply wait for the opponent to attack, Machida forces the attack with careful pressure.
Despite the boos that accompanied it in 2008, one of my favorite Machida fights is his bout with Tito Ortiz. It's classic Machida, through and through. Lyoto was never really the aggressor, but he forced Tito to feed him a steady supply of counter opportunities with a relentless kicking game. Anderson Silva uses similar tactics with great success.
In the first round of their fight, Machida throws 19 kicks, and only six punches. He opens the round with four lead outside leg kicks, deftly stuffing a counter takedown attempt on the fourth one, and then feinting with the lead leg only to switch to rear inside leg kicks moments later. Unable to land a takedown or a single strike from Machida's range, Tito is forced to rush forward to try to catch Machida. By the end of the round the ex-champ is throwing up his hands in frustration, but it doesn't help.
So what's the point of all this? Turn your eyes to this magnificent GIF. In the third round, Tito is desperate to lay his hands on Machida, one way or another. All of this culminates in Lyoto's specialty strike, the left knee to the body. Tito begins to change levels to attempt yet another takedown, and dives liver-first into Machida's rising knee. He folds up in agony as Machida, ever the cautious fighter, is already circling to his right, exiting range on a different angle from his attack.
This is the choice that Machida offers his opponents. The fact is, these fights are part of a competition sport, and Lyoto's opponents know that. Fighting from a distance, Machida can happily carry a decision over most fighters in the division. Never one to put himself at unnecessary risk, he is happy to take those wins. If, as is sometimes the case, his opponents are not satisfied with the prospect of losing an uneventful decision, however, he is more than happy to let them walk into one of his picture-perfect power shots. It's not always kicks -- against Couture Machida used a pawing jab to draw his opponent in -- and some opponents don't need to be goaded at all, such as Thiago Silva. But of those who have chosen to chase the Dragon down, more than a few have woken up minutes later with a flashlight shining in their eyes.
Fighters like Lyoto Machida don't come around often. It takes a special fighter to translate years of Shotokan Karate into a successful MMA career (just ask Lyoto's brother and cornerman Chinzo). The ex-light heavyweight champ possesses a potent arsenal of strikes, and wields them with deadly wit. Whether or not Machida has the style to beat Jon Jones in a rematch I don't know, but every one of his fights is absolutely filled with beautiful little moments like the ones above, and I for one will never tire of seeing this master at work.
To close, please check out this GIF of Lyoto walking BJ Penn into the most artistic footsweep I have ever seen. Can't nobody do that like the Dragon can.
Check BE tomorrow for my breakdowns of the striking of The Korean Zombie, Chan Sung Jung and Jose Aldo, who just might be the best striker in MMA.
You will soon be able to hear more of Connor's analysis on his podcast Heavy Hands, debuting soon. Check out heavyhandspodcast.com.