Few in the mixed martial arts world have accomplished as much as Lyoto Machida. If he defeats Chris Weidman at UFC 175 this weekend, Machida will become just the third man in UFC history to win belts in two divisions. What's more, Machida has fought and beaten the two other men who accomplished that!
He has handed numerous unbeaten fighters their first loss—Rashad Evans, Thiago Silva, and Rich Franklin being the most notable—and has done it all while not conforming to the mixed martial arts norm.
I was lucky enough to watch Machida compete from the front row when he knocked out Mark Munoz at UFC Fight Night: Manchester last year. Machida had stepped in as a late replacement for an injured Michael Bisping and frankly, the crowd seemed more than happy to see him. That's like being told you're being bought McDonalds and ending up at a steakhouse.
What my companions in press row remarked on more than anything else was Machida's speed. Speed in a fight is really a binary relationship—you are either the faster man or the slower man, by how much rarely matters. But what Machida is so masterful at, and what we will be talking about, is creating the illusion of speed.
Machida playing the matador. Two times he traps the lead hand and attacks with the rear, the third time, both hands go forward again but he surprises with the knee instead. What a beaut.
Maai and Control
Whenever we talk about Lyoto Machida it is important to remember that we are dealing with a different style and different principles. Looking at Machida from a boxing stand point, he's horrendous. But aspects which would hurt him in a boxing or kickboxing exchange—such as a low non-punching hand, or failure to tuck the chin and shrug the shoulders—do not matter if he is not fighting those types of exchanges.
Japanese karate—of which Shotokan is the most popular style—was heavily influenced by Kendo. The idea that one should treat one's hands and feet as swords was taken very seriously, so sparring became about avoiding being touched and diving in to touch first. In karate competition, it often turns into a game of tag, but applying the same principles in regular sparring with people who can box or kickbox will often result in the development of a very unique, elusive style.
Kendo's focus on getting across the floor quickly, and the fact that many of the university students who helped karate flourish on the Japanese mainland had trained in Kendo, led to the long range, bursting footwork we can spot in karate today. Certainly, karate as it had been practised on Okinawa was a rough style developed from various styles of Chinese martial arts with close in fighting.
Because of this emphasis on not getting hit in modern karate, a greater distance is maintained between the karateka and his opponent (it should be noted that we are not considering Kyokushin variants here). The distance in Japanese is known as the maai or sometimes simply ma. This is easily noticed in Machida's bouts, the distance he maintains is cavernous compared to many other fighters.
Karate in brief, is a game of drawing to counter, or bursting across the floor in one of several methods.
Machida will maintain this distance, baiting opponents to come to him, then he will run. The distance gives him a ton of time to react, and makes him a hard man to catch when he's playing the running game. The truth is that the only control you reliably have over every opponent is in getting him to step forward. If you step forward he could retreat or attack. If you circle he could circle away or step to meet you. If you retreat, he isn't going to retreat in turn.
Opponents get frustrated by Machida's “running”, and they start rushing—speeding up their movement in hopes of catching him. They take what I call the “extra step”: that little dash forward expecting him to give ground. If Machida can get an opponent to start taking two steps in to punch where they should really only have to take one to fight effectively, Machida can start creating collisions.
I can almost hear the groan... “Not the bloody collisions again, Jack”.
Yes! Collisions are where knockout force is produced, but they are also one of the great ways in which you can exaggerate your physical speed. Think back to when you were a bratty child and you were running along in front of someone, then stopped abruptly just to let them bump into your back and fall over. What Machida does is like that, except instead of tumbling over and getting up to say “what larks!”, his opponents run into a straight punch or knee. They can't stop themselves and, because both bodies are in motion towards each other, they often don't have time to see it coming and prepare for the impact.
This interception is called Sen-no-sen in the Japanese martial arts and it is regarded as the highest level of martial arts strategy. In boxing it is sometimes called a simultaneous counter. Bruce Lee called it intercepting and named his entire philosophy of Jeet Kune Do for it. We don't have much time to lark about with this here, but in Japanese swordsmanship there are Three Initiatives: Sen, Go-no-sen, and Sen-no-sen. Sen is to attack, Go-no-sen is to defend then counter, and Sen-no-Sen is to intercept your opponent's attack with one of your own. More on that in Fighting Karate.
Take a look at this classic instance of Rashad Evans suffering a Sen-no-sen knockdown which led to a finish. All night he has been stepping in and missing as Machida ran away. Machida decides this time he will step in at the same time. He steps outside Evans' lead foot, takes his head offline, and Evans steams forward into the counter punch.
Here Machida maintains the distance against Rashad Evans.
As soon as Evans steps in, Machida steps in to meet him. This causes a collision and makes Machida appear far faster and more powerful than he would be if he were chasing or striking at a stationary target.
You've heard that martial arts are about using the opponent's weight against him, you thought it was for judo throws, but intercepting counters are perfectly in line with that philosophy.
It doesn't matter whether it's intercepting with the reverse punch, the springing knee, or the wedge throw, getting the opponent to chase is the whole game.
Mas Oyama demonstrating the basic wedge throw. A classical technique which won't work on too many competent judoka...
Unless you get them coming in!
Walked Down by Weidman?
There was another man in the middleweight division who was very good at using distance to force an opponent to overcommit, Anderson Silva. Silva would get an opponent rushing him, let their attack fall short, and nail them with a counter attack.
It's not quite the same, because Silva liked to let the opponent fall short and peck over the top (a la Muhammad Ali) where Lyoto Machida likes, for better or worse, a car crash.
It can sometimes be messy but the force produced is always tremendous.
Jon Jones' faked roundhouse kick to leaping hook was an instance where Machida's diving in with one hand low, hoping to create a collision, worked against him.
Anderson Silva was accused of fooling around too much in his first match with Chris Weidman, but I think most educated fans—now that we are far removed from the emotion and buzz of the fight—realize that Silva was trying to create an opportunity. He was being stifled on the feet and had been taken down, Weidman wasn't doing anything stupid, and he was beating Silva to the punch when he did step in. Silva had to get Weidman to do something silly, so he started acting out.
Perfect discipline from Weidman against a frustrated Silva.
Lyoto runs, Silva dances. Two methods to accomplish the same thing: an overcommitment from the opponent. Each time Silva walked backwards, slapping his own face and telling Weidman to hit him, Weidman would edge forward, on top of his hips and feet, and jab. Weidman was always ready for something coming back at him.
Always in position to counter.
Or move out of the way.
Weidman's striking style seems very plain in most of his fights, and recent footage of him sparring with Rory MacDonald was smothered in youtube comments about how average Weidman looked. The thing is that Weidman isn't about razzle dazzle. He hits hard, he wrestles well, and he just has to get into the correct distance to do either of those things well—no sense diving in from the outside or running in swinging. This isn't 2000, and he isn't Kevin Randleman or Mark Coleman, he's a genuine mixed martial artist.
So here's the million dollar question—though sadly neither fighter will be paid anything close to that much—what happens when Weidman starts walking down Machida? Well, Machida's countering style does not require opponents to overcommit so much as Silva's, because he steps in to meet them. But equally stepping in with failed counters in a match against a grappler as strong as Weidman could mean that the rest of a round was spent on the fence or on the mat.
Machida fighting off the takedown following an intercepting knee on Phil Davis. Though, Weidman has been known to wrestle just to tire opponents out for later work, rather than go desperately for takedowns as soon as he sees the chance for one.
Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson did a decent job of walking Machida down, but landed little of note and ate knees and punches en route. Machida was able to wobble Jackson, who was reluctant to rush in, just by getting Jackson into the habit of plodding forwards with no resistance.
Machida's style doesn't require a great deal of commitment. As long as his opponent is moving forward, even conservatively, he can step in to meet them. This sweep is a favourite of the karateka, Seiji Nishimura.
In contrast, Weidman doesn't just walk forward, he cuts off the cage well and herds opponents into power punches. In his bout with Uriah Hall, he used this to exploit Hall's hands down circling when they neared the fence and knocked Hall out with a left hook.
Of course, Machida has been working to improve his offensive game since Phil Davis essentially stalled to a decision win against the always cautious Brazilian. His feints and his kicking game looked sublime against Munoz and Mousasi, and Machida is becoming masterful at sneaking up the back leg to further add to the illusion of speed by lengthening the distance to which he can lunge.
Though it was kicking while Jackson was coming forward which got Machida into trouble in brief moments.
Sneaking up the back foot is an important part of karate. By feinting the kick in this manner Machida remains in position to defend himself, but can drive forward further with his offensive steps than he could have from his ordinary stance.
Munoz was smart enough to keep circling, but this feint can set up nice attacks. It is one of many which Machida uses.
Here is an excerpt from Masahiko Tanaka's Perfecting Kumite detailing thrusting out of a crouch with the back leg drawn up. In my trips to Tokyo, Koji Ogata and Tanaka both stressed to me the importance of sneaking the back leg underneath oneself to hide one's intention to blitz. It's a little more subtle if you're feinting kicks or circling the hands (called “enshin” in karate).
Getting up on the ball of the back foot is an excellent way to cut time off of rear straights and kicks (albeit at the expense of power) by starting a little way further along the motion. Roy Jones Jr puzzled dozens of men with his right hand lead, simply because it was so much faster than a typical right straight should be. The secret? He started out further along the motion.
Notice how Jones' shoulders are already squared, his right hand is either in front or by his chest rather than in guard, and he turns his right foot before moving. Shaving off the split seconds.
There's a ton to say about Machida, and a lack of footage of Weidman. Despite owning a UFC title, he is still largely an unknown. With just 11 fights, it is a little early to compile a Killing the King: Chris Weidman, but you can bet that to beat Machida he will have to show us a little more of his potential. If his previous performances are anything to go by though, we're in for a treat at UFC 175.
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