On May 23, 2009 the UFC light heavyweight title was on the line in a fight that featured two undefeated mixed martial artists who approached fighting from two completely different backgrounds.
The champion "Suga" Rashad Evans represented the conventional MMA wisdom that said a foundation in wrestling combined with capable striking was the best approach to winning a fight, more "practical" than traditional eastern martial arts, with their emphasis on form over function. Meanwhile, his challenger, Lyoto "The Dragon" Machida, was the offspring and student of a Shotokan karate master, and his early fight experience consisted of karate and sumo tournaments. This showed in his elusive, defensive counter-striking style and unconventional (for MMA) bladed, wide-leg stance.
The fight was vintage Machida, and it was clear early that his experience as a martial artist would be an advantage over Evans. His footwork was far superior to the champ's, and throughout the first four minutes of the first round Machida's feints and fakes kept Evans on his heels, unable to land any significant strikes or even attempt a takedown. In the final minute, Machida caught Evans with a straight left flush on the jaw, knocking him down. Evans survived the round, but his rudimentary striking and relative inability to control distance had been exposed.
The second round played out much like the first, with sparse action punctuated by occasional tense exchanges. Once again, Machida waited until just over a minute remained in the round before capitalizing on a "collision." Trapping Evans' signature pawing lead hand with his own right, the Dragon again connected with a straight left that dropped Evans to one knee.
Though stunned, Evans responded with trash talk, mocking Machida's "pillow hands." The challenger gave him no quarter, though, continuing with a flurry of strikes that led to one of the UFC's most infamous and dramatic knockouts. As Evans lay there unconscious, announcer Joe Rogan welcomed the TV audience to what he called the "Machida Era."
Though that era would only last through one victory, Machida's win over Evans showed once again how MMA evolves through contraction and expansion. Early on in the history of the sport, wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, boxing, and kickboxing were established as its five pillars. But as each of these styles became integrated into the repertoire of all elite fighters, aspects of more fringe styles, such as karate, emerged as tools to counter them. Karate may not be an ideal base for MMA, but Machida proved that night that a wrestler can't take down what he can't catch.
Check out these other Defining Moments:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.