Longtime light-heavyweight top-tenners collide in the co-main event of Saturday's UFC 163 card from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as former title holder Lyoto Machida meets Penn State wrestling standout Phil Davis. Featherweight monarch Jose Aldo defends the strap against Chan Sung Jung -- "The Korean Zombie" -- in the pay-per-view headliner, which airs at 10:00 p.m. ET after the preliminary card runs its course on the FX Channel (8:00 p.m. ET) and Facebook (est. 6:30 p.m. ET) beforehand.
Shortly after we began to categorize certain fights as "striker vs. grappler" affairs, the term "sprawl and brawl" sprang up to describe the striker's typical means to keep the fight in his preferred phase of combat. There's no better example than the way Chuck Liddell lowered his stance, pivoted in tight angles and drilled holes with his hands, all the while staying exceptionally on-balance and light on his toes to physically repel takedown attempts.
The distinguishable new spin Lyoto Machida put on the classic strategy redefined the art of sprawl and brawl as we know it. The cliche name, however, just didn't fit: brawling wasn't a suitable word for the graceful violence that ensued in a Machida fight, and some opponents literally struggled to get close enough to lay a finger on the Japanese-Brazilian mirage, so there wasn't even really much sprawling involved. The word "elusive" or any variance of it then became standard practice to describe Machida's karate-based wizardry.
The reason we didn't bother to think up a nifty new name for it is the same reason we can't call Machida a trendsetter -- because no one else can do it. Lyoto's martial arts prowess can be astounding and awe-inspiring, yet also kind of creepy because you just don't understand it -- like a David Lynch film, or when that magician David Blaine bites metal coins in half.
Contracted for the role of "grappler" in this soiree is a particularly hulking specimen in Phil Davis (11-1). As a four-time Division One All-American at Penn State, "Mr. Wonderful" is among the most accredited wrestlers in MMA. He's also complemented his foundation with noticeable improvements in the striking and submission departments; a virtual fulcrum that separates one-dimensional takedown artists from dynamic prospects.
And at 28-years-old with at least another 5-6 years ahead of him, Davis is still somewhat of a prospect. Thus far his evolution has been moderate but gradual and encouraging, and he deserves extra credit for cutting his teeth against steep opposition. Davis has tangled with reputable names in over half of his ten UFC outings: current #1 contender Alexander Gustafsson (1st-round submission win), former champion Rashad Evans (decision loss; the only of his career), Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (decision win), Tim Boetsch (2nd-round submission win) and Brian Stann (decision win).
Though much more subtly than Machida, Davis exhibited a little innovation of his own with the modified hammerlock he pretzeled Boetsch with and it's flat-out rare to see finishes like that, and the anaconda choke he latched on Gustafsson, on an All-American wrestler's resume. But the key to unlocking that success for Davis, especially against someone as fleet afoot as Machida, is imposing his wrestling game.
In painfully plain terms, Davis is limited to the following options: a) take Machida down in open space, b) get close enough to clinch up and then work his takedowns and infighting, or c) out-strike him.
This is where Lyoto really shines. In the Free-Movement Phase, he's motoring about of his own accord, slashing an elaborate medley of angles that would confound a Calculus professor and slicing with a puzzling array of unorthodox striking techniques. Intangible factors like pace, timing, rhythm and tempo always influence the ability to land strikes, and Machida gets the highest marks possible in each of those categories.
To catch Machida and connect with him in open space is simply highly unlikely for any opponent. This is Machida's forte and his prestigious reputation stems directly from dominance in this aspect.
Clinch Takedowns and In-fighting
This is still perhaps an under-appreciated facet of Machida's. I don't know whether it's from his uncanny ability to both stay on-balance and off-balance his opponent or from his Sumo background, but Machida is an absolute beast in the clinch, especially when he gets the body lock. It's disheartening to chase such an evasive specter constantly only to be pelted with a knee and tossed aside on the rare occasion you're able to connect with him.
Though still a strong suit for the former champion, Davis has made some critical on-the-fly adjustments with his wrestling in the past that will come in handy here. He's switched from blast double-legs to low singles to simply cutting off the cage and launching himself into the clinch when his opponent is cornered. His biggest strength isn't with one technique or the other, but in having the diversity to keep his attacks unpredictable and the intelligence to select the best one.
This is where Machida really shines, mostly on account of the "open space" qualifier. He wields an unusual and elite striking arsenal by way of unusual and elite movement. That means it takes a fighter with elite striking or elite movement to contest him in open space, and Davis has neither.
Let's not sell the guy short though: his kicks are lengthy and fairly effective from outside, he's put together a nice jab- and hook-cross combination and he's held his own -- to some extent -- with the likes of Nogueira and Evans. And this is MMA ... impact trauma to the chin makes people go unconscious. Davis is a big guy, he hits hard, and he'll be strongly inclined to punch Machida.
But it was no coincidence that almost every one of the key categories began with "this is where Machida really shines," because Machida shines in this type of fight and against this type of opponent.
Davis' most realistic opportunities are to rely on his lead jabs and hooks, during which he shuffles left to center up his right cross, only finding a way to compensate for the assembly of chaotic angles Machida will be moving in. In what might be an odd example, Chris Weidman knocked out Anderson Silva by hanging his left hook out wide enough to connect with someone a few feet to the left of Silva's location. At this point, no one knows where Machida will teleport to when a strike is thrown at him, but it's a safe bet that he won't be standing still in the pocket -- so anticipating his evasion and targeting an alley he's likely to escape through, with either strikes or a clinch/takedown attempt, is a viable outlook.
Even though Davis is an excellent fighter, what really makes his chances seem dreary is the fact he's still tasked with mounting some sort of memorable and effective offense during the rare occasions that he can get his hands on Machida.
My Prediction: Lyoto Machida by dominant decision.