Lyoto Machida fights Luke Rockhold at middleweight in the main event of UFC on Fox 15, on April 18, 2015 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey
Single sentence summary:
Dragon vs Surfer, that well-known early ‘90s smash hit movie.
Ryu vs Ken, that well known early 90's video game.
Lyoto "The Dragon" Machida
History lesson / introduction to the fighters
Phil: "Lyoto Machida, Karateka" is MMA's long-running experiment on the potential of traditionalism, and on how much it can be evolved while still being considered traditionalist. If Machida's initial success as a proponent of the Dane Cook of martial arts was surprising, then what's been even more of a shock has been how well he's withstood the buffeting of years in an MMA career. He dropped a weight class, and switched up his training camps, and remains a top-flight contender while contemporaries have dropped by the wayside. Bonnar, Tito, Franklin, even Shogun- how many of these guys are still meaningful fighters in the way that Machida is?
It's the kind of durability and flexibility that you don't expect to see from... well, anyone, let alone traditional martial artists.
David: That's always been the attraction of Machida; more than manifestation of a traditional martial artist, the concept itself is fascinating. On paper, he's an anachronism; not 'mixed' so much as 'militant' in the martial arts. But he's truly honed his craft over the years, and it's a sincere delight to watch him compete. Machida's bouts with Weidman, Mousasi, Evans, and Shogun 1 are some of my favorites.
Phil: Rockhold has had a strange career for a blue-chipper. Started in wrestling, then deciding it wasn't for him. Went from BJJ straight to MMA's premiere wrestler-conversion camp at American Kickboxing Academy. Graduated from Strikeforce's feeder league to winning Strikeforce's belt in a massive upset. Arrived in the UFC with some solid hype, only to get posterized by the parchment-skinned testosterone-beast that was 2013's version of Vitor Belfort.
Throughout all this, however, Rockhold has always radiated potential. Is it time to realize it?
David: Well you can't talk about Rockhold's development without talking about the injuries that halted said development. From 2009 to 2013, he had a whopping six fights total. So it's hard to fault for much of anything, and I think most people would be comfortable picking Rockhold in the rematch.
What are the stakes?
Phil: Title shot! For Rockhold, anyway. Fundamentally, I think this Fox card was set up much like the Shogun-Vera-Bader-Machida card, which was meant to determine the next #1 contender for Jon Jones based on whoever won in the most impressive fashion. Even though, of course, it didn't end up doing that at all.
Jacare has been a little screwed. I don't think there's a way that he could possibly beat Chris Camozzi that would be impressive enough to get him a shot over the Machida-Rockhold winner. Essentially, I think if Rockhold wins, he probably goes straight to Weidman-Belfort. If Machida and Jacare win, they most likely fight each other next.
David: Not much to add. Machida doesn't factor into the title shot plans except as a last resort, or superfight injury replacement. Lyoto basically has to hope one of the top contenders gets injured. Rockhold doesn't need to win this fight, but he's one of the few guys who can't afford to fall behind despite his tenure in the sport. Rockhold isn't really a prospect at this point. He's 30 years old, and suffered countless injuries. I'm a believer in what Luke is capable of, and I think he can win this bout in a way few fighters can, but with his stalled development, he's gotta play ketchup with the division.
Where do they want it?
Phil: Machida's game is well-known by this point: left straight, left body kick, left head-kick, stepping left knee (common theme being spotted here?). More recently he's added some combination punching and a right jab and hook.
As broken down in James Stapleton's excellent fan post , his process revolves around rapid lateral movement, where he'll deflect or move past strikes and then suddenly lunge in with the crashing left straight. This style has acquired a bit more of a Cordeiro flavour in recent years- his movements are a little less exaggerated, and he's more prone to using subtle slips while sniping for openings with kicks. I think this is partially the natural maturing and conserving process which almost every higher level fighter goes through, and partially a deliberate strategic narrowing. Suddenly charging forward is a great way to create collisions, but if you get it wrong (as he did against Jon Jones), then that could be the end of the fight.
David: Machida's big revelation was the development of his power. He didn't have it early on. Five of his nine wins since first winning by KO have come via punches/kicks. Conversely, he only had one in his first thirteen bouts despite facing inferior competition. There was no one secret ingredient, but being able to bait and feint his strikes as he accrued a wider variety allowed him to trick opponents easier while opening up the doorway to playing a more aggressive style without sabotaging his counter striking ability.
Phil: If Machida came down to 185 to stop fighting against men who were much bigger than him, then he might be forgiven for looking at Rockhold and thinking "this is some bullshit right here." Rockhold is an absolutely titanic middleweight. Unlike many large fighters, he keeps a pretty good pace and has a great balance between attritional and finishing approaches. He's a diligent body kicker, and in has a supremely varied kicking game- round, front, question mark, tornado, you name the kick, Rockhold will probably try and throw it. He's far more monotone as a puncher, and basically just uses the right hook. Lead hook going forward, check hook going back. Fundamentally he wants to pressure using his kicking offense at range, and the hook is there to catch opponents who try to close in.
In terms of striking distance, it's kind of defined in four areas: Machida takes the absolute outside with movement, where he can bait Rockhold into over-commitment and then counter. A little closer, and outside kicking belongs to Rockhold. A little closer, and outside boxing goes to Machida with the straighter punches, and inside boxing belongs to Rockhold's right hook, together with almost any kind of clinch work. Machida's awesome in the clinch, but he's largely defensive.
An interesting factor is that both men are southpaws, so they'll likely be taking on the unfamiliar closed-stance engagement.
David: Yep. Machida can be offensive via grappling in the clinch. He's pretty adept at scoring trip and clinch takedowns in the middle of exchanges, but he's not one to sit there for the sake of pressure and opportunity. Rockhold is the flow chart version of Machida. He's a little wilder, which makes his style look aesthetically different, but the philosophy is similar. Both look for offense in intervals.
Rockhold's athleticism is the key difference here. While Machida is fast, his speed is emphasized by his ability to counter, stick and run, and time. Rockhold is just naturally that fast, so there's a little less inertia.
Insight from past fights?
Phil: The only closed stance fights these guys have really had have been against Vitor and Franklin, but I'm not sure how illustrative they are. Both Machida and Franklin were super raw when they fought, and Rockhold had problems with getting busted up early in fights back when he fought Vitor which just aren't there any more. The other obvious fight is Machida vs Shogun, which shows how someone with a real focus on round kicks can shut down Machida's game.
I'm going to go utterly off-piste here, though, and pick the round robin of fights between Jeremy Stephens, Tony Pettis, and Cowboy Cerrone. Why is this odd trilogy pertinent to this fight? Because, to me at least, they reflect the same approximate dynamic as Rockhold, Machida and Weidman: The volume kicker, the sniper, and the stalker, respectively. Stephens the stalker gave (and has historically given trouble to) Pettis the sniper, because while Lil' Heathen is not the quickest fighter, he has a natural understanding of how to close space and an instinctive grasp of how to not bite on feints until the opponent is positionally disadvantaged. However, he was cut up before he could close the distance on Cerrone. Cerrone, conversely, was waxed by Pettis because his high-volume distance artillery left holes for Showtime to shred him with a single shot.
Extrapolating, I think that Weidman's careful pressure is the bad matchup for Machida, Machida's (or Vitor's) kill-shot striking is the bad matchup for Rockhold, and Rockhold's distance volume is the bad matchup for Weidman. Every one of them is capable of overturning these stylistic problems, however, because they are all just that damn good.
David: There's definitely a rock paper scissors aspect to the division's elite that appears to be brewing. Although I think Luke has a real shot here. To me, the biggest thing is reach. Luke will be able to close the distance quicker than most fighters, and there's a dynamic here that Machida isn't used to; looking in a mirror in which violent objects are closer than they appear. There are certain aspects to Luke's game that will allow him to replicate what Shogun accomplished, and even though Rockhold's power isn't what Shogun's used to be, he makes up for it in speed, and reach.
To be sure, Luke is more hittable. In some ways, it's open season if you're Machida. But Machida likes to pressure in intervals the same way he counters, and Luke's rhythm could create in imbalance in Machida's approach. I think Rockhold should be able to chamber his offense more than Machida as a result, forcing Lyoto to fight more desperately than he's used to. See the Weidman and Shogun rematch for obscure evidence.
Phil: Judges? If this goes to a decision, I think there's a good chance we get something like Shogun-Machida or Edgar-Henderson I, where body work is weighed against head strikes.
David: It goes without saying even though it's worth saying again. Incompetent judges are never not integral to the action, which sucks. Oh well. Anything to get rid of Douglas Crosby.
Phil: I was sorely tempted to pick Rockhold. However, I'm not convinced that if the shortened distance for his money punch is taken away from him that he can box with Machida much. He's an incredible athlete, but the way we dissected the Pettis-Dos Anjos match and pointed out the holes in his game and then defaulted to Showtime because he's the better athlete rankled me a little in retrospect. Athleticism is great. It's not a superpower. Super-close, wonderful fight, and I'm not sure if there's an outcome which can really surprise me, but Lyoto Machida by unanimous decision.
David: Well, the real x-factor there was dos Anjos' incredible assertiveness. I try to avoid old boy's club cliches of determination, but there's no denying the importance of attitude. dos Anjos walked Pettis down like he owned him and his keys to the city. Rockhold, I think, has a similar demeanor. He knows he has to step up and make some noise for the division. What better place than here? What better time than now? Luke Rockhold by Decision.