When UFC middleweights Gegard Mousasi and Lyoto Machida meet this weekend in Jaragua, Brazil, not only will we see a match-up of tremendous skill but of two fighters in very different places in their careers.
Mousasi has been beating great fighters left, right, and centre since 2008, and finally made his way to the UFC last April. Unfortunately his scheduled opponent, Alexander Gustafsson, was forced to pull out and Mousasi was left to put on a jabbing clinic on the largely unknown Ilir Latifi. Having fought just twice since December 2011, and against less-than-stellar competition, Mousasi faces an enormous step up in Machida.
Machida, for his part, is also looking to find some stability in his fighting life. He recently made a move to a new weight class, and though he won his middleweight debut by impressive knockout, that was a fight that got put together on short notice, a scenario that will always favour the unique and enigmatic Machida.
Machida’s last performance at light heavyweight, a unanimous decision loss to wrestler Phil Davis, highlighted the difficulty the counter-punching Machida can have if an opponent refuses to charge him. With hopes of becoming a more successful fighter on offence, Machida will be meeting one of the calmest and most methodical strikers at middleweight in Mousasi.
The Machida Riddle
It's something that’s spoken about repeatedly on Countdown to UFC segments and in podcasts and articles: the Machida riddle: How do you go about attacking one of the finest counter fighters in the sport?
The main problem is that Machida will retreat from all of his opponent's attempts to engage three or four times, and then, once they overcommit, he will step in to meet them with a punch or knee. The art of striking, no matter in what style or sport, is about creating collisions rather than landing glancing blows on an opponent who is moving away, and Machida is phenomenal at creating these collisions in MMA.
For a long time this retreat-retreat-retreat-collide strategy worked on just about everyone. Over the last few years, though, there have appeared three main answers to the Machida riddle.
The first was Mauricio “Shogun” Rua's method of forcing Machida’s retreats and then kicking at his trailing leg. Because Machida spends so much time moving, he is rarely in position to check kicks, so Shogun was really able to take it out of Machida.
The knockout in their rematch came largely because Machida neglected his in-and-out tactics and stayed too long in the pocket against a better brawler. Shogun's kicking of the trailing leg in their first fight, however, was to my mind the best exploitation of Machida's game when Machida was fighting at his best.
The second method, used by light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, is to specifically counter the holes in Machida's counters. Machida drops his non-punching hand every time he steps in, exposing that entire side to strikes. Machida's timing normally ensures his safety, but during round two of their fight, Jones faked a kick and leapt in with a nice rear-handed hook to Machida’s exposed side. Machida's punch glanced off Jones' forearm while Jones' punch landed flush and dropped Machida, leading to one of the most memorable guillotine chokes in MMA history.
The third method for answering the Machida riddle isn't really answering it but rather meeting inactivity with inactivity. Phil Davis' fight against Machida raised a lot of eyebrows because almost nothing happened. Davis refused to bum rush Machida and Machida failed to lead effectively against Davis. Davis sprinkled in some low kicks and two successful takedowns (in 10 attempts) and was able to pick up the decision. Everyone was underwhelmed but the fight was an important one for Machida. He learned that if his opponents aren't daft enough to run at him swinging, he has to have something else in his bag of tricks.
Understanding these solutions to the Machida riddle, it's time we take a look at something that happened in Tokyo on New Year’s Eve 2010.
The Kyotaro Similarity
Back then Kyotaro Fujimoto was a moderately successful Japanese kickboxer. During his career he picked up the K-1 heavyweight title and pulled off a couple of shocking knockouts over the incredibly dangerous Melvin Manhoef and the legendary Peter Aerts. He's important to this story because his methodology is not dissimilar to Machida's in some ways; he is certainly stylistically the closest to Machida of anyone Mousasi has fought.
Kyotaro would back up and run away until his opponents got frustrated, resulting in the throwing out of the hands, the challenging of masculinity, all of that stuff we're used to seeing against Machida from Tito Ortiz, Quinton Jackson, and so on.
Remembering how some UFC fans accused Jon Jones and Carlos Condit of cowardice for "running"? I like to imagine that those same fans' heads would explode with anger if they ever watched a Kyotaro fight.
But whenever an opponent did forget about the possibility of a punch coming back, Kyotaro was on them like a pack of wild dogs armed with one of the best right hands in K-1.
In Japan, kickboxers and MMA fighters often appear in crossover match ups on New Year’s Eve. Mousasi, having had success against Musashi (different guy, similar name) at 2008's event, signed to take on Kyotaro, who at the time was the K-1 heavyweight champion (a title that isn't as significant as it sounds), in the 2010 event.
Throughout their bout Mousasi was able to out-point Kyotaro by staying on top of his stance and never giving Kyotaro the chance to catch him with that tremendous right hand. He successfully exploited Kyotaro's back-pedalling style by chopping away at the trailing leg with low kicks, and put Kyotaro so far behind that the cautious Japanese fighter was forced to go on the offensive.
Kyotaro, like Machida, does not excel on the inside. His range is the range at which he can leap in with his right straight then tie up or swing for a finish against a hurt opponent. When he tried to close in on Mousasi on his own terms, Kyotaro ate jabs and hooks and was eventually dropped as he tried to push Mousasi away.
Here Mousasi uses a jab to force the retreat from Kyotaro and kicks the trailing leg--a tactic Shogun showed us can work against Machida.
Here Kyotaro goes on the offensive, just as Machida was forced to do against Shogun in the middle rounds of their first fight, and Mousasi breaks his rhythm with a nice jab.
And here Mousasi uses some nice head movement to win an exchange:
And again ...
Against Kyotaro, Mousasi understood the need to stay within his stance, not over-commit, force the retreat, and chop away the trailing leg. Every single one of those approaches will be invaluable against Machida.
Machida on the Offensive
What's most intriguing about this Saturday’s fight, other than Mousasi's lay-off and step-up in competition, is Machida's renewed emphasis on offence. I was in the third row for his last fight, against Mark Munoz, and I was truly blown away by what he was able to accomplish purely on the attack.
Machida has almost no lead-leg strikes (awesome crane kick aside); almost all of his effective leads come off of his back leg in one form or another. He uses his rear-leg roundhouse kick to hide his springing knee strike and vice versa. Additionally he will use the front snap kick often, and even though he only has one snap-kick knockout on his record, the threat of it will keep an opponent upright, exposing his body.
Perhaps my favourite addition to Machida's game (“addition” might not be the right word, but rather an element of his game that has found new polish) is his feinting with his rear leg. You will remember that he was able to throw Randy Couture off with his repeated rear leg feints, but against Munoz they seemed far more convincing.
Machida in his normal stance:
Machida pops his rear hip forward, bringing his rear foot underneath him and onto the ball. From here he can explode forward with strikes to capitalize on the success of the feint or continue to walk Munoz down.
Most fighters when they feint a rear leg kick will lift the knee or bump the hip forward then return it into stance behind them. This will make the opponent flinch but otherwise achieve little. Machida will feint with his rear hip while drawing his rear leg up underneath him on the ball of the foot. A great deal of time in karate point-fighting competitions is devoted to sneaking the back foot underneath you so that you can drive forward farther than your opponent anticipates. Koji Ogata, who has bested both Machida and his brother in karate competition, stressed to me his method of sneaking his rear foot underneath himself while distracting the opponent with the lead hand. Other fighters bounce back and forth to hide their back foot sneaking up underneath them, ready to propel them forwards.
In his fight with Munoz, Machida's feints with his rear leg allowed him to creep forward and always be in position to fire. What was especially noticeable in that fight was that Machida, who normally loves to be running all around the cage, was constantly moving Munoz closer to the fence, allowing him to fluster Munoz with flurries and land his key kicks.
Here is Machida cutting off the cage on Munoz and then throwing a light 1-2.
And here is Machida more effectively using his position to fluster Munoz, get Munoz's hands out of position, and land a good body kick.
Pressing a fighter towards the fence not only removes one direction of escape, it can shorten their stance and open up their defences, or it can fluster them into making an ill-advised attack. Anthony Pettis is always moving his opponents towards the fence then trying to take their head off as they attempt to fight their way out or shoot a takedown. For a counter fighter with a reluctant opponent, cutting off the ring will provide the pressure needed to make an opponent engage.
This is very much a new wrinkle in Machida's game; watching him fight Mark Munoz was a far cry from the days of him chasing Sam Hoger or David Heath around the ring and running backwards as soon as they fired back.
Conclusions: What to Look For
Mousasi is an incredibly patient fighter. If all Machida wants to do is counter, it's hard to see Mousasi getting over-aggressive. He has shown that he is one of the most adaptive fighters in the game. For instance, he swarmed all over the chinny Keith Jardine, but he kept his distance and picked apart the hard-hitting Sokoudjou and Ilir Latifi. He understands that sometimes fighting is appropriate, and sometimes boxing is.
It might very well be in Machida's interest to move forward in this fight--not to trade punches with Mousasi but to land hard knees and kicks. If Machida can give wrestlers like Rashad Evans and Randy Couture his leg and fight off the takedown from there, he can probably get away with it against Mousasi.
Look for Machida to make certain that Mousasi is in an upright stance rather than heavy on the lead leg and looking to catch kicks and throw heavy punches. Should Mousasi come out in his hunched stance, front kicks are likely to dissuade him from keeping with that stance throughout the fight.
Mousasi, meanwhile, will probably look to pressure Machida towards the fence but remain in an upright stance. If anyone has an advantage in prolonged exchanges it's Mousasi because of his better head movement, guard placement, and boxing. Of course, getting Lyoto Machida into the pocket to exchange has proven to be one of the hardest tasks in MMA.
Check out these earlier breakdowns from Jack Slack:
An American in Thailand: Travels Through Muay Thai - Beginnings
Into the countryside.
What It Was Like to Spar At Miletich Fighting Systems Back in the Glory Days - Part 1
Into the fire.
The Shady Business of Promoting MMA in China
A true fight promoter.
Defining Moment - Old Man Randy Couture Defeats Tim Sylvia
The iconic moment.
Thank the Lord: Nick Diaz Is Back