Many believe that finishes--knockouts, submissions, and stoppages--are the reason that combat sports exist. Indeed, history's most beloved fighters have almost invariably been those who sought, at all turns, to win their contests absolutely; there is no arguing the legitimacy of the win when one man is left standing and the other on his back.
But I do not believe that combat sports exist merely to satisfy our primal hunger for violence. It's not the ability of a fighter to finish that compels us to watch, but the refusal to be finished. The greatest and most memorable fights in history--bouts like Frazier vs. Ali I, Henderson vs. Rua, or any of the three wars between Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera--are celebrated for the stories they tell, not the amount of blood spilled. The will to not only survive but to overcome is the one factor that decides whether a fight will be remembered in ten years, or forgotten in one.
This series intends to celebrate those fights, in boxing, kickboxing, and MMA. And no, not every main event is one for the record books, but every man or woman who wades relentlessly into the deep waters of a long fight creates a narrative that needs to be conveyed, and that story is told in the momentum swings of the fight. Let's celebrate those moments when everybody knows it's all about to be over, except the two in the cage.
This is Pivotal Moments: Machida vs. Mousasi.
Machida fans are used to a certain creeping feeling, especially in the early rounds of his fights. We know he's waiting for a window of opportunity, drawing his opponent in for the inevitable counter strike. We know he's looking for that perfect gyaku zuki to end the night quickly. The problem is, the judges don't always realize this. And when the opportunity for that fight-ending shot doesn't present itself, the Dragon tends to find himself on the wrong end of the decision.
That sinking feeling is the dread that--oh no--Machida's giving yet another round away.
Fortunately, Lyoto seems to have learned a thing or two from his many controversial decisions, and become a bit less picky with his counters, and a bit more proactive in creating his own windows of opportunity.
1. Machida tests the range with a front kick.
3. ...and stepping in with a long, powerful jab of his own, that Machida dodges by moving his feet and his head.
4. Mousasi's commitment to the strike has left him off balance, and Machida jumps back into range with a left hand that clips the Dutchman on the ear.
This was the moment that sealed the round for Machida in my eyes. As they approached the final minute both fighters seemed to gain a sense of urgency, something neither of them are particularly known for, and battled for the judges' favor. Despite a few near misses, Mousasi was not able to connect cleanly to Machida's head, and this classic Machida counter was the proof that Machida was ready and willing to punish him for trying.
As we entered the second frame, both fighters seemed to have warmed up a bit. This was reflected in Machida by his characteristic looseness--an attitude that, to the untrained eye, looks very much like he has gassed out, when in reality he is at his most dangerous. Gegard Mousasi's comfort level was indicated not by any notable change in his bearing, but by the range at which this round took place.
While the first round was spent almost entirely in Machida's comfort zone, that curious distance somewhere between a stone's throw and a boxer's jab, the second saw Mousasi keeping closer to the Dragon, exerting more and more pressure, and showing less fear of his opponent's counters, despite eating the best shot of the fight in this round in the form of a flawless Machida head kick (GIF). Getting away from the single shots that had gotten him countered so far, Mousasi inched his way into the pocket and started unleashing combinations.
1. Borg-like, Mousasi incorporates Machida's lead hand feints into his game, backing the Brazilian up against the fence and making him hesitate.
2. A final feint is followed by a lunging right hand, which misses.
3. That is followed by an awkward-looking left hook. Mousasi shifts into southpaw as he throws, and uses the frame of his glancing punch to keep Machida upright, to stop him from avoiding the next strike...
4. ...a straight right to the chin. Mousasi turns as his left foot comes into position, now back in orthodox at a very strong angle. His punch, though imperfect, still knocks the squared Machida off balance.
Judo Chop: Lyoto Machida's Karate Rhythm
Lyoto Machida is set to face a dangerous opponent in Gegard Mousasi, in a bout that could earn him a shot at the middleweight title. BE's striking specialist Connor Ruebusch breaks down the unique rhythm the Dragon will use against the Dreamcatcher.
Success against a counter striker of Machida's level cannot always be measured in leaps and bounds. Mousasi's punches may not look like much here, but the fact is that, in the second half of round two, he managed to avoid Machida's counters while attacking with combinations of his own. Setting up his strikes with the jab only to lead with the right hand, and shifting to the side to catch Machida with a final punch: these are the kind of tricks that made Mousasi such an enticing, and worrying, opponent for Machida. I would never call Mousasi's striking "pretty," but it is undoubtedly effective.
Mental pressure is one of the most important aspects of the pressure fighter's game, and it often goes unmentioned or unnoticed. A close look, however, reveals that Machida had started to feel the pressure by the end of this round, and certainly in the third.
By round three, Machida had started crossing his feet, biting on feints, and making other fundamental errors. By and large he still managed to keep outside of Mousasi's effective range, but the effects of Mousasi's increased pressure and confidence were clear. As Machida circled right, Mousasi would cut him off with a sharp jab or left hook. As Machida moved left, Mousasi would intercept him with a right hand or right kick.
In most great fights, the momentum swings are all but painfully obvious, but in a technical battle like this, every adjustment and adaptation is subtle and easy to miss. Machida's answer to Mousasi's increased pressure was as subtly beautiful as it gets, and it was straight out of the Shotokan Karate textbook.
1. Machida tests Mousasi, drawing him in with a pawing right hand.
2. As he feels his back nearing the fence, Machida drops his weight, and traps Mousasi's left hand.
3. Mousasi slips right where Lyoto expected him to, right into the path of Lyoto's step-off straight left.
4. And, showing off his awareness, Machida immediately grabs an underhook to stop Mousasi's counter takedown attempt.
Before the fight, I spoke about Machida's use of rhythm changes to throw his opponents off. This is a classic example of that. By this point in the fight, Mousasi had gained confidence in his offense, and was walking Machida down repeatedly, while Machida waited for him to counter. By utilizing combinations, Mousasi felt he had thwarted Machida's game, but forgot that the Karateka didn't actually have to wait for him at all.
Machida's right hand began working to convince Mousasi that Machida was no threat. By constantly probing and feeling out the gap between himself and Mousasi, Machida got his opponent accustomed to his outstretched hands. In short, Mousasi momentarily forgot that Machida's hands were anything to worry about. Trainer Daði Ástþórsson calls this method "pet-pet-slap." Think of it like this: if you have a cat on your lap, even one that's wary about being touched, you can convince it of your good intentions by petting it once, twice, maybe three times. And I can guarantee you that the cat will not expect the same hand that's been petting it so nicely to deliver a hard slap a mere second later. In this scenario, Mousasi is the cat, and Machida is the wanton animal abuser.
That metaphor might have gotten away from me a bit, but you get the point. By going from slow and non-threatening to lightning fast and aggressive in the blink of an eye Machida began to seize the initiative back from his opponent.
Over the course of round four, Machida seemed to be just barely edging Mousasi, though Gegard was far from beaten. Suddenly, Machida showed a technique that he seemed to have forgotten, one of the staples of both his Karate days and his early MMA career.
1. Machida switches to orthodox.
2. A lunging right hand barely misses the mark, but the huge follow-through is intentional. Machida allows his right arm to completely cross Mousasi's chest.
3. Now, with the momentum of his punch, Machida brings his right leg forward, placing his feet directly behind Mousasi.
4. A simple shove is all it takes to send Gegard toppling to his back.
This technique, called sukui-nage, was once one of Machida's go-to attacks, but it's been a while since we've seen him make a concerted effort to off-balance his opponent and put him on his back. Perhaps it was the five round fight that made Machida see the sense in this throw, or perhaps it was the pressure of Gegard Mousasi--whatever the reason, it's great to see the Dragon utilizing some of the techniques that made him who he is.
Often fighters will allow their rear foot to trail out of position when they drive forward into a punch. What Lyoto Machida does is take this natural tendency to fall into strikes and turn it into situational genius. Instead of falling out of position, Machida simply allows his right foot to drag forward and land to the rear of his opponent's lead leg. Mousasi was so caught up with Machida's massive punch that he missed the fact that he was being set up for an effortless takedown. This is also indicative of Machida's thinking man's fighting style--so many fighters randomly switch from orthodox to southpaw and back again, simply for the sake of "giving the opponent a different look." With Machida, there is a purpose behind every movement (for a more in-depth breakdown of this specific technique, do yourself a favor and check out Jack Slack's latest.
The remainder of the round was spent on the ground, where we were treated to a neat sweep from Mousasi, some nice guard work from Machida, and a violent illegal upkick to finish things off. Heading into the fifth round, Mousasi seemed uncharacteristically frustrated with his opponent. It was close, but things were clearly going Machida's way.
Unfortunately for Gegard, he just couldn't get back on track. This fight was a wonderful game of speed chess, both players trying constantly to test one another's defenses, and ultimately put each other in check, all while under the stress of being smashed in the face by the opponent. The fight was, for the most part, a methodical, thought-out affair, with countless adjustments made by either fighter.
So it seems only fitting that it should end with an atomic mega punch falling like a comet from the heavens.
1. Mousasi escapes Machida's back control and turns into a takedown, which Machida pulls out of .
2. Now on the ground with Machida rearing over him, Mousasi rolls back and loads up his infamous up-kicks.
3. Even at the inception of a supreme moment of ultraviolence, Machida is planning. He steps to the left as he leaps into the air, causing Mousasi's up-kick to go sailing harmlessly by his side.
4. Machida plummets to the ground, blasting Mousasi with a thunderous right hand that forces the Dutchman to cover up till the final bell.
This right here is the beauty of the sport. A climactic end put the stamp on this vintage Lyoto Machida performance, which nearly ended in a fifth-round version of the Thiago Silva knockout that earned Machida his first UFC title shot years ago. It's hard to miss the poetry in that notion, since this fight seems to have earned Machida yet another chance to win UFC gold.
So what's the story of this fight? Well, Lyoto Machida is the story of this fight, and in many ways this fight is the story of his career. Sometimes inconsistent but always brilliant, Machida seems to be ever-evolving. It's almost unbelievable to think that we are seeing the best Lyoto we've ever seen, as he nears his 36th birthday, but it's true. Never have we seen the Dragon put together such a cohesive, strategic gameplan against such a dangerous striker. It's a special thing to see a fighter continue to improve in the supposed twilight of his career, but Lyoto Machida is exactly the man I would expect to do so, and I for one cannot wait for his shot at the middleweight belt.
For more fight analysis and fighter/trainer interviews, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast that focuses exclusively on the finer points of face-punching. Coming tonight: the Machida vs. Mousasi recap with Dallas Winston. Please rate and review the show on both iTunes and Stitcher.