As referee “Big” John McCarthy was pulling Yoel Romero off of a battered Lyoto Machida on Saturday night and MMA fans all over the world started waxing nostalgically about the former light heavyweight champion and the end of the Machida era, my thoughts turned to, of all things, 1987’s The Princess Bride.
At one point in the film (spoiler alert, but come on, the movie’s older than I am), there’s a scene where the main character, The Man in Black, is thought to be dead and is taken to a miracle man played by Billy Crystal in order to see if Crystal’s character, Miracle Max, can bring him back to life. After some shenanigans and classic Crystal improv, it’s eventually revealed that our hero isn’t completely dead. He’s just mostly dead, and he’s eventually supplied with a pill to bring him back to life before living happily ever after.
So, as Romero was celebrating his victory in the cage and fight fans were busy writing eulogies for the Machida Era, my thought wasn’t that Machida’s career was dead. Instead, it was that his career was just mostly dead and it’s going to take a miracle — I was going to say a miracle pill, but that’s probably not the answer with the new NSAC rules — for him to turn things around at this point.
First of all, it should be noted that while Machida has struggled against really good competition over the last year, he is still a high-level fighter who could beat at least 75 percent of the fighters in the UFC’s middleweight and light heavyweight divisions. However, with Machida checking in at 37 years old, it’s clear that “The Dragon” is no longer the fighter he once was. After a couple of brutal losses, it’s becoming more and more apparent that Machida’s career as a top-flight fighter in the UFC is on life support.
Things have been bad for Machida lately, and with the former champ getting stopped in devastating fashion for the second time in just a few months this weekend, it gave us a pretty brutal reminder of how quickly things can go south for an MMA fighter. It was less than a year ago that Machida stood across the cage from middleweight champion Chris Weidman and gave him what is to date still the toughest fight of his career. Machida went five full rounds with the guy who had just finished Anderson Silva twice. It was barely six months ago that Machida rebounded from that performance with a 62-second thrashing of C.B. Dollaway and reinserted himself into the middleweight title picture. However, all it really took was two and a half months and two fights for Machida’s career to go from being on solid ground to being flipped on its head and becoming a point for major reevaluation.
There was a time where watching fighters try to actually land shots against Machida was almost comical. The word elusive has been used to describe “The Dragon” for the entirety of his UFC career. Early on in Machida’s UFC tenure, it was like trying to catch smoke for opponents to try to legitimately get their hands on Machida and do damage. In other words, it was both immensely frustrating and damn near impossible. And while over the years we’ve seen Machida’s ability to essentially enter the Matrix decline as he’s become more hittable in the stand-up department, that elusiveness served the striker well when it came to competing against guys hell-bent on getting him to the mat. Or at least it had until recently.
In his recent losses to Luke Rockhold and Romero, Machida’s downfall came once the fight hit the floor. In the past, even if someone was lucky enough to grab the karate expert and drag him to the mat, it usually didn’t take long for Machida to use his undervalued ground skills and get the fight back to where he’s most comfortable. However, in his last two fights, the explosion needed to get back to the feet just didn’t seem to be in Machida’s arsenal. Once he hit the mat, he ended up in a world of trouble against both fighters. Whether it was Rockhold’s calm and composed ground-and-pound and submission attack or Romero going into straight-up berserker mode and throwing elbows like a madman, Machida’s wrestling in reverse, for the first time in a long time, completely failed him inside the Octagon. He’s going to need to undergo a drastic change of approach if his struggles in that area continue.
Now sitting at just 3-3 since a move to middleweight in 2013, Machida needs to take a step back and consider whether cutting the extra 20 pounds he’s been shedding since dropping to 185 is worth it. Once the best fighter in the world at 205 pounds, “The Dragon” had the entire MMA community extremely excited to see him get a whole new set of options and match-ups when he first made the cut to middleweight a couple of years ago. But after a decidedly average run in the division, it may be time to go back to his roots. Machida’s stick-and-move style is at its best when he can use his accuracy and elusiveness to soften up fighters and look to find a weakness in their defense, a strategy that seemed to work quite a bit better at light heavyweight than it has at middleweight.
On the flipside, Machida had to be extremely careful when rushing in and playing with fire due to the amount of punching power possessed by nearly everyone at 205 pounds. The fighters at middleweight are faster and cover distance quite a bit quicker than their light heavyweight counterparts, but it’s really only the best fighters in the division that cause problems for Machida.
Against someone like Gegard Mousasi, who was more than content to stay on the feet and try to strike with Machida, or even the wrestlers he beat at middleweight, like Dollaway or Mark Munoz who were so outmatched on the feet that takedown defense was the only offense Machida really had to worry about, Machida looked every bit as good as he did during his heyday at light heavyweight. Only super athletic and well-rounded fighters like Romero or Rockhold were able to stop Machida from working that in-and-out game plan effectively, and it’s not out of the question to think the same scenario may end up presenting itself against the best of the best at 205 pounds.
Luckily for Machida, he’s a true legend of the sport and there will always be a few match-ups for the UFC to fall back on that fight fans didn’t even realize they wanted. While he may not have it in him to fight the top contenders in the world right now, there are plenty of guys sitting right on the fringe of the rankings and title scenes that would make for incredibly fun and anticipated fights for “The Dragon.” Whether he goes toe-to-toe at 185 pounds with someone like Michael Bisping or Vitor Belfort, or he decides to move back up to light heavyweight and takes on Antonio Rogerio Nogueira or gets his rubber match with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, there are plenty of options for Machida to look at right now without jumping right back into the thick of things in either division.
In all honesty, this version of Machida is likely in trouble against the best the division has to offer, no matter what weight class he ends up fighting in. It’s hard to see Machida looking any better at 205 pounds against Daniel Cormier than he did against Romero at middleweight on Saturday, and the same theory applies to the majority of top contenders in both divisions.
Where “The Dragon” decides to go from here will play a big part in how his career will eventually be remembered. After being a contender for more than five years running, it’s going to take a major ego check for Machida to take a step back and fall into a few fights that don’t have any major implications as far as the title scene goes. But if he wants to continue his career, that’s pretty much his only option. If Machida were to march straight into battle with another title contender in his next fight, it could be enough to officially kill the Machida Era for good. On the other hand, a quick change of pace for a fight or two could end up being the miracle pill he needs. The Machida Era is mostly dead, but with the right match-ups and a little bit of luck, “The Dragon” may be able to keep it alive for a little bit longer.