It seems almost paradoxical to speak of a counter fighter controlling the pace and action of a fight--after all, the very basis of a counter fighter's game is to react to the opponent--but that is exactly what the best of the best do, and Lyoto Machida is no exception. Machida's brilliance is in seizing the initiative even as he waits for his opponent to attack. He does this by drawing from his opponents the strikes he wants them to throw, and keeping them from throwing the ones they want to throw.
His method can be divided into two sub-styles. First, there is the style that has made Lyoto famous, that of pure counter striking. This style relies on drawing the opponent in and forcing them to create openings, through which Lyoto lands devastating strikes. The second sub-style in Lyoto's game is seen when he leads, and the key to this approach is rhythm, a little-discussed aspect of fighting that the Dragon excels at using to his advantage.
Today we will break down both of these methods, and the tools that Lyoto uses in his endless pursuit of the perfect knockout.
Drawing attacks from the opponent is one of the most important skills a counter fighter can possess, however it is far more complicated than it sounds. Of course, the opponent wants to hit you, or close the distance to take you down. In all but the rarest circumstances, it is not a great task to convince him to pursue such a goal. The difficult thing is making him throw the strike you want him to throw. In a way, fighting is like the movie Inception, wherein the counter fighter must convince his opponent that he wants to throw a particular attack. And just like Inception, the opponent is left feeling confused and unsatisfied by the ending.
Working toward this perfect counter is a slow, meticulous process, and it is this process that makes every Machida fight so divisive--half the fans love his traditional yet scientific approach to fighting, and the other half find him dreadfully boring. There is purpose, however, to the crawling pace of Machida's early rounds. From the start of the fight, Machida is calculating, testing, and cataloging the reactions of his opponent. In a word, it all comes down to Machida's extensive use of feints. "What does he do when I do... this? How about this!" Machida's various jumps, weight shifts, pivots, and arm waggles are all a part of the process to landing that beautiful counter.
1. Having determined that Couture wants to counter him coming forward with an overhand right, Machida steps into a long southpaw jab.
2. Immediately he steps back, hop-stepping to his left as Couture ducks his head and throws the expected punch.
3. Having secured the angle, Machida pops Couture with a straight left to the cheek...
4. ...and his trademark shift right hand to follow up.
1. Machida stands before Phil Davis, who looks mildly annoyed at the idea.
2. A subtle feint from Machida--a slight extension of the right arm and a tiny change of elevation--so subtle, in fact, that you'll probably have to watch the GIF to detect it.
3. Davis is sensitive to these feints, though, and he begins to launch a right kick. Machida reacts immediately, having expected Davis' strike.
4. Davis' head stays in the same spot throughout his kick, and Lyoto's left hand nearly knocks him off his feet as a result.
It's a virtual certainty that we'll see this aspect of Machida's game in the Mousasi fight, but his trainers have recently suggested that he will attempt to be more aggressive as well, perhaps hoping to pressure the pressure fighter and throw him off his rhythm, which brings us to our next segment.
Rhythm as a concept is very difficult to explain or teach. Some fighters have rhythm, and some fighters don't. An excellent method for studying rhythm, taught to me by the great Wilson Pitts, is to play fight footage, and at the same time play some rhythmic music, be it jazz, salsa, dub reggae--it doesn't matter. What you'll find is that some fighters are actually excellent dancers. In fact, almost regardless of the tempo of your chosen piece of music, you'll discover an uncannily large percentage of fighters seemingly falling into near-perfect time with the music: boxing, as it were, to a steady 4/4 beat. One of my personal favorite examples is the boxing match between Kostya Tszyu and Zab Judah. Let's play it to, say, some salsa--P'a Bravo Yo by Justo Betancourt. Just start both videos at the same time, and mute the fight.
Almost from the first seconds of the fight, its clear who the better dancer is. Judah's rhythm is excellent--he moves his hips, dances out of range, cuts tight angles, and even troubles Tszyu with some serious power punches. But the funny thing about fighting is... it's not dancing. Yes, rhythm is important, but in a fight rhythm is only meant to be established in order to be broken. Notice how erratic Tszyu's movements are in comparison to his opponent's. While even Judah's punches seem to come out at a pre-established pace, Tszyu is constantly feinting, dropping, moving slowly only to jerk suddenly. So despite Judah's early success, Tszyu is able to gain the upper hand. Once he learns Judah's rhythm, he punishes him for keeping it, and earns a vicious second round knockout. Considering how good Judah looked moving around to it, the musical stylings of Justo Betancourt make a satisfyingly ironic backdrop to Tszyu's post-fight celebrations.
Lyoto Machida understands this concept very well. He knows that every one of his opponents is trying to time his movements, and he uses that against them, for if Tzsyu could knock out Judah by timing his rhythm correctly, surely a counter fighter of Machida's caliber can knock an opponent out by letting them think they've timed him, only to hesitate at the critical moment.
We can find some excellent, and exceedingly GIF-able, examples of this method in Lyoto's Shotokan Karate days. Here we see him landing a vintage left hand on Shawn Wiebe at the 2000 World Karate Championship.
This is a classic Lyoto Machida set-up. He disrupts Wiebe's movement with a short lead outside low kick that places his foot to the outside of Wiebe's foot. Then, Machida steps in, but does not throw his punch immediately. Instead, he takes a beat, moving into position and throwing Wiebe off simply by virtue of the fact that he isn't punching as he marches into Wiebe's space. Machida gets a lot of credit for his speed, and it is considerable, but it is the Dragon's timing that makes him such a formidable counter striker. Instead of using speed alone, Machida shows great intelligence in choosing the right moments to move slowly as well. Wiebe's reaction was entirely mistimed, because Lyoto's punch was not predictable.
How to Trap a Dragon: Pressure Fighting w/ Mousasi
Gegard Mousasi may have won his UFC debut, but his first real test in the organization is one of the most feared counter strikers in the sport, Lyoto Machida. BE's striking specialist Connor Ruebusch examines what Mousasi will need to do to win.
You know when you're in a group of people who, for whatever reason, are clapping along to a song? Maybe it's "We Will Rock You" at the baseball stadium, I don't know. But there's always that one person who just can't seem to get the beat right, simple as it is. Instead of stomp-stomp-clap, it comes out stomp-STOMPclap, or stompstomp-CLAP. And it throws you off unless you try your hardest to ignore it, right? Well, imagine you had no natural sense of rhythm, and you were tasked with keeping the beat by following that person's movements. You would find it impossible to keep up, not because of their sheer speed, but because you could never tell when they were going to clap quickly, and when they were going to clap slowly.
That is rhythm, the Lyoto Machida way. His opponents become so fixated on stopping him from doing what he wants to do, that their inability to time him ends up being their undoing. No fight is a greater example of that than Machida's latest, a heartwarming knockout victory over friend and training partner Mark Munoz.
Unfortunately, you'll have to view that GIF in another window, but examine the different speeds at which Machida launches his kicks. The first, to the body, is almost immediate, a brief load-up followed by a lightning fast kick. The second, also to the body, is hesitated--two full beats go by as Machida moves forward into range. The final kick, which ended the bout, was different still, thrown in a perfect 1-2 cadence, with the step as the first beat and the kick itself as the second. Munoz, no knowing how to time the kick, panicked, flinched, and brought his second blocking arm out of position, rendering his remaining hand inadequate to absorb the force of the kick.
As I said before, timing and rhythm aren't easy concepts to explain, and they are especially difficult to illustrate. But the manipulation of rhythm, and the opponent's perception of it, is one of the greatest weapons in Machida's arsenal, and one that Gegard Mousasi has almost certainly never dealt with before. Will it be enough? We'll have to wait and see.
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