Analyzing The Ground Game Of Lyoto Machida: The Rolling Dragon (UFC Career: Part One)

Analyzing The Ground Game Of Lyoto Machida: The Rolling Dragon (UFC Career: Part One)

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We will discuss in great detail the grappling exchanges which took Lyoto Machida's career from simply a fighter on the UFC roster to a contender in the UFC light heavyweight division. While many would like to describe Machida as 'elusive', when the contest traveled to the canvas, Machida never missed a step. 'The Dragon' was and still is very devastating when the contest would turn to the art of ground fighting. Through out Machida's career it has been rare to see him on his back, but unknown to many his bottom game is top notch. His heavy top game, transitions, ground and pound, trips, throws, takedown defense, his anticipation and versatility on the fly have made him one of the most demanding grapplers in the UFC light heavyweight division.

The tools that will be discussed in this article:

  • Machida's hip over sweep
  • Footlock Defense & Ground and Pound
  • Top control & Passing
  • Trips, throws, Take Down Defense & Counters

Machida's hip over sweep

One of the few and fleeting moments Machida ends up on his back is midway through the first round against Sam Hoger. As previously stated, Machida has a dynamic bottom game is quite underrated among most fans. Machida's ability to avoid strikes and neutralize the top game of his opponents is astonishing. In the half-guard Machida works to his side which immediately creates space. Then Machida works to control Hogers left arm to avoid damage, and shoots his left arm behind Hoger's to create leverage. Machida fishes his left arm behind Hoger's left arm to initiate a sweep, which I call the 'half-guard hip over'. When done correctly this move does not require a terrible amount of energy. By putting his arm behind Hoger's, sitting up, and maintaining the half-guard hook he has from the bottom will allow him to transport Hoger to his back with relative ease. Notice as Machida completes the sweep, with his right arm he hooks Hoger's left leg and holds it. This deters him from 'shrimping out' and creating space, as well as avoiding any taking of the back Hoger might try. The key to this technique is maintain pressure, and as you come up suck the leg that is hooked in towards them. This is one of the best sweeps, from half-guard, it is so simple and quite effective.

Footlock Defense & Ground and Pound

A little later on in the fight with Sam Hoger, Machida gets a knock down and follows up with some brutal ground and pound. Machida uses a can opener hand position with his left hand to pull Hoger's head closer and control his posture. While making Hoger uncomfortable it also nullifies much of Hoger's defense causing each punch to find its target. The real critical technique in this exchange by Machida is his foot lock defense (leg submission defense in general). As basic and easy as it is, Machida planting his foot firmly into the ground counteracts any foot hold Hoger has. The main focus to all of those submissions is to elongate and extend the leg and or foot to manipulate and control it. The base Machida creates when he steps into submission equates to someone trying to heel-hook a tree. When combining the planting of Machida's leg and the semi-can opener he not only makes Hoger uncomfortable, he distracts him with the allowing of a submission attempt he is not going to complete. Lastly a minor additive to the already very fluid motion of Machida is how he spins out of the foot-lock position. Instead of violently yanking his foot out of Hoger's hold, Machida glides it through the path of least resistance. Machida turns to his left, (which for split second could leave him vulnerable, if Hoger worked for the heel-hook) putting his heel in the arm pit of Hoger, which creates space and allows Machida to slide his foot right out with the spin.

Top control & Passing

Not long after Machida's victory against Sam Hoger Machida would take on David Heath. After rocking Heath with knee's towards the end of the round, Machida ends up in the half-guard. Machida locks his hands forcing his left forearm into Heaths throat. There is a secret to this. Machida is not simply trying to cause Heath discomfort and distract him to attempt the pass, but he is also nullifying any 'shrimping' or hip escapes. By pinning Heaths head to the canvas, Machida is removing Heaths ability to create space. With his head pinned Heath can not bridge or move his hips out. This allows Machida to work his instep inbetween the half-guard of Heath, slowly breaking the guard. Machida pops open Heaths legs just enough to shoot his right knee through, and to glide it over Heath's right leg. Machida stays chest to chest, and maintains heavy pressure the entire time, only relaxing a bit after he gets side control to work for the crucifix.

Towards the end of the fight with Hoger Machida sets up a beautiful outside trip with a subtle yet genius misdirection. Machida first attempts a clinch position, but quickly transfers to a double under-hook hold when Hoger ties up with him. Once he has the the double under-hooks' Machida pushes forward. Right as Hoger tries to step back and create space, Machida cuts the angle. Cutting the angle is the technicians answer 'powering' or 'muscling' a take-down. The misdirection not only disorients the opponent, the turn takes the opponents base out right from under them. Watch Machida's feet. Each step he takes after the tie-up has a purpose. The first step closes the distance for Machida to lock his hands, the second step pushes Hoger backwards, and the last step sets up the trip. Notice how he is not using any force he is simply stepping behind and between Hoger's legs. This foot position lands Machida perpendicular to Hoger putting him a precarious situation. Along with the position, misdirection, and footwork Machida slides his left leg right behind Hoger's as he cuts the angle. The smoothness that Machida operates this technique is bewildering. With ease Machida glides Hoger to the ground, happily passing into half guard.

At the end of the second round Nakamura does get Machida down, which gives on lookers a view into the creative guard of Machida. Machida works from an open guard the entire time. Machida is constantly looking for ways to create space between Nakamura, and himself. Immediately Machida looks to work his feet into Nakamura's hips, thrusting him back. Nakamura loses his base for a moment, while Machida is pushing his hips. Machida adds to this with pressuring of the head. Head control is a aspect which is not highly emphasized in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu schools, as say wrestling(but a wrestler would not be working the head of his opponent from his back due to being pinned). Machida uses this to great affect, creating a large amount of space (which cannot be focused on enough) pushing Nakamura's head off to the left. As soon as Machida has his hips out enough, he throws his leg over for the omoplata cutting the angle perfectly. The only downside of the technique is that Machida does not control Nakamura's left arm enough to secure the omoplata when he throws his legs over. This is very important in MMA, and no-gi jiu jitsu due to the lack of friction from a gi.

Trips, throws, Take Down Defense & Counters

Against the cage Hoger attempts to bring 'The Dragon' to the canvas with an inside trip, but Machida counters beautifully. Essentially when Hoger intends to hit the inside trip with his right leg on Machida's left leg, an opportunity for an outside trip for Machida is wide open. When Hoger attempts the sweeping motion with his right leg, Machida does not resist and follows the motion. This is not to be confused with simply standing there. Effort is required to follow the sweep and one must be conscious of the action. As the two men make a one-hundred and eighty degree spin Machida with his outside hook sweeps Hoger. This puts Machida in Hoger's half-guard completely turning Hoger's offense into Machida's opportunity. At the very end Machida grabs the fence obviously for balance, and it is against the rules. The fact is grabbing the fence or not would have done very little to change where and how the two men landed. I am not justifying the use of the fence, but stating the reversal by Machida did not rely on it in anyway. (As this was Machida's first UFC fight as well, everyone makes errors in the beginning.)

Following Machida's victory over David Heath, he would be matched against Judo black belt Kazuhiro Nakamura. Nakamura is notable for defeating Igor Vovchanchyn, Kevin Randleman, and Murillo Bustamante. Also in Nakamura's final Pride bout he lost a hard fought decision to Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua.

Photo: Move: Harai Goshi

Early on in the first round Nakamura attempts a Harai Goshi (Sweeping Hip Throw with a modified over-hook (wizzer) grip. Machida while following Nakamura against the cage spaces his feet so that his right leg is wide to the right, but also ahead of his left. This leaves Machida's entire body at an angle. The angle matters, because had Machida put his left leg forward or even his feet even with each other, he would have been thrown. While concious or not, this foot placement keeps Machida's body from turning with Nakamura's in the throw. At the peak power of the throw Machida flings his left leg behind himself and to the left in a semi-circular motion. Machida lands in a position to mount Nakamura's legs, and pass.

Later on against Nakamura Machida hits a beautiful Ashi Barai ( foot sweep). While in judo it has many variations they are almost all exclusively using the foot as the sweeping mechanism. Machida uses his Karate based form, which includes the foot as a tool, but is not limited to it. Instead Machida steps in using his inner thigh instead of his instep, which slides behind Nakamura's right leg. Machida stepping through the way he does, sets the men up in a perpendicular form, which breaks the base of Nakamura leaving him off balance. If unfamiliar with Judo, and Karate, the technique is a heavily momentum based outside sweep, or trip (depending on how implemented). The beauty in this technique is how Machida sets it up off countering Nakamura's thrusting right hand. Machida steps in as soon as Nakamura loads up his right hand, moving his head out of danger. Watch Machida's left arm, he grinds it into Nakamura's chest, and face as he falls (the arm motion is very similar to a 'cross-face' from wrestling. The key to this technque is when the two men become perpendicular and Machida has his leg behind Nakamura's he creates a fulcrum point. A singular point for which Machida and control the base of Nakamura. flipping him right over his leg.

While very similar to the above Ashi Barai, Machida hits this trip from a slightly different angle. The technique is done with the opposite side (Machida's right leg this time), and Machida trips Nakamura more than sweeping him. This is due in part to Machida not getting as deep, and relying more on his right foot hooking Nakamura's left leg rather than the hips becoming perpendicular (they still become perpendicular, but not as much). Lastly Machida pushes the face of Nakamura instead of grinding his arm into him.

Nakamura shoots in for a single leg, Machida counters against the cage spacing his legs across the cage. Machida checks Nakamura's oil (putting the hand between the legs from the back to control the hips), while at the same time it seems Machida is looking for the cradle (one hand comes over the head and under the belly, while the other comes from the butt end and between the legs locking together to control the opponent. From wrestling). After a few seconds Machida gives up what seems to be a cradle attempt and starts pushing down the head working Nakamuras neck. Then Machida thrusts his hand down on Nakamuras head, and pulls him around turning into the cage. This allows Machida to go to the back, but Nakamura rolls to his back giving up a leg mount. The key to whole counter here is Machida's timing. He works the head for a second, but then blasts it down and pulls, and lifts Nakamura's back end dropping him down into the cage.

Machida through the early part of his UFC career showed a very unique and dominant grappling ability. His take down defense was stern, his trips were violent, and graceful. His ground and pound was vicious. Seemingly deficient no where really, and only getting better with each fight.

Follow next time, when we dive into the second part of Machida's UFC grappling career.


for those who think Machida is simply 'just good enough' are ill informed. Machida is a very high level grappler.

Heres a match against Lovato Jr for your viewing pleasure.


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