For years fighters tried in vain to solve the Lyoto Machida puzzle. Now it is Machida’s turn to try and solve his own puzzle – 205-pound wunderkind Jon Jones. This fight is a prime example of how quickly a fighter’s stock can soar or sour in the eyes of pundits and fans (Jones’ career doing the soaring and Machida’s doing the souring, relatively speaking of course). It is educational that Machida enters this contest as a heavy underdog. Only two years ago the real-life Karate Kid was UFC champ and unbeaten. People were raving about “The Machida Era” – and I didn’t object. Only the experts who had christened Machida were quickly dispelled. After a 16-0 start, the fight game’s most perplexing riddle dropped two of his past three bouts (to Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson).
So you don’t have to spend much time scratching your head about why Machida enters the UFC 140 title matchup as a sizable underdog (though not nearly as big an underdog as Matt Serra was four years ago when he knocked out Georges St-Pierre and won the welterweight world title). Jones – already crowned 2011 Fighter of the Year at the World MMA Awards - now represents an aura of untouchability and unstoppability that Machida himself exuded not too long ago. Jones is 14-1, though that single blemish is incredibly misleading (his lone loss came via disqualification for illegal elbows in a bout that saw Jones manhandling Matt Hamill. It was a beatdown so memorable it had the power to send shudders through future opponents, making them think twice about signing on to fight Jon Jones).
Jones, a New York native, has never come close to losing a fight and has never encountered even so much as a three-second slice of a fight that didn’t feature him essentially toying with his prey. In one regard, Jones’ domination reminds me of Mike Tyson before his 21st birthday: The only suspense that arises in a Jon Jones fight involves how long the other guy can survive. “Who wants it more?” and “Who’s going to win?” are NOT questions you asked yourself while watching Tyson in his short-lived prime. And they are not questions you ask yourself during a Jon Jones fight.
And yet, mindful of the landmines that lurk when you underestimate an opponent, Jones has called Machida his most dangerous foe to date. I don’t think it’s lip-service; I think the champ is sincere – and he’s absolutely right. A UFC.com online poll was recently conducted which asked visitors, “How long will Jon Jones reign as champ?” The results surprised me. 31% said at least another year. 15% said at least three more years. 11% said at least five more years.
43% of voters picked Machida to dethrone Jones this Saturday in Toronto.
Now, the polls are not scientifically conducted here, meaning one person with a computer could vote 10 times if they wanted to (not the case with a scientific poll). And I suspect that the raging nationalism and loyalty of Brazilian fans is pushing the needle a lot. But perhaps fans are also acknowledging that Machida is probably the only man in the 205-pound division who can match Jones’ unorthodox tendencies with his own equally unorthodox tendencies. Unorthodox usually means unpredictable, and unpredictable means the chances of “anything can happen” shoot way up. Make no mistake, these are the two kings of unorthodox in the UFC.
An esteemed colleague of mine, Jon Anik, also conducted an informal survey among his 25,000 or so fans on Twitter. Anik posed the question: Who is the 205er best equipped to beat Jon Jones?
The responses: Rashad Evans (34%); Lyoto Machida (24%); Dan Henderson (20%); Phil Davis (16%), etc…
And hey, just for some extra ammunition in Lyoto’s favor, Machida and Jones were pitted against each other on the UFC Undisputed 3 video game. The results: Jones triumphed 18 times, Machida won 7. But, as Chael Sonnen would say, “we’re going to find out” who the better man is. Titles aren’t won or defended on paper, or by reporter debates, or online fan posts, or polls, or video games. Lest we forget, Rashad Evans is one heck of a fighter. 21 wins. And the only man to beat Rashad Evans is …. Lyoto Machida. So Machida, a former UFC champ, has been here before. He knows what it feels like to hold the UFC light heavyweight title, which, if ever there was a hot potato among UFC belts, the 205-pound belt is it.
I’m very much looking forward to this fight. And it wouldn’t surprise me to see Machida pull the upset. But my guess is that the challenger must come into the Octagon with a few new surprises, something nobody has ever seen before (something like the front kick that TKO’d Randy Couture in his last fight, knocking out a front tooth). It will take some new tricks to overcome the superior athleticism of Jones and his massive reach advantage (Jones’ wingspan is a whopping 84.5 inches versus 74” for Lyoto. And that reach advantage is obviously key for Jones because it allows him to be in range to hit and kick – without being in range to be hit and kicked by the other guy).
MIR VS. BIG NOG
Both of these guys, both victims of serious accidents involving motor vehicles, are lucky to be alive, let alone sharing the co-main event at UFC 140. I’ve got to say that I have seen a lot of super-tough guys in this sport – Wanderlei Silva, Frankie Edgar, Donald Cerrone and BJ Penn jump to mind – but Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira is the pinnacle of toughness. He is the Gold Standard, the Bushido code personified. I’ve never seen a man time and again endure more pain and suffering and exhaustion in the pursuit of victory than the 35-year-old Brazilian. A black belt in judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Big Nog is unquestionably one of the great heavyweights in history, but there are lingering questions about whether all of those wars have taken their toll. His chin is granite no longer, as Cain Velasquez demonstrated, as Frank Mir proved during his first go-round with Nogueira three years ago.
I must confess, I never saw Mir beating Nogueira. I had presumed it was a bad stylistic matchup for him, presumed that if they fought 10 times, Big Nog might win all 10 of ‘em. In my mind … the better standup: Big Nog. The better ground game: Big Nog. Who wants it more: Big Nog. So I stood inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena that night literally shocked as Mir abused Big Nog, put on a boxing clinic and floored Nogueira three times. I ran into Mir a week or so later and told him to his face that I was stunned that he not only beat Big Nog, but did it in such convincing fashion.
“No disrespect, I like you Frank, but I didn’t see you winning.”
Mir was 260 pounds; I weigh 146 on a good day. This was actually my first ever meeting with Mir (before either of us would start training Brazilian jiu-jitsu under renowned black belt Robert Drysdale). So I’m standing there alone talking with Mir and being probably a lot more candid than I should (a bad habit of mine).
“Before this fight I questioned your heart, I questioned your cardio, I questioned how much you wanted it,” I told him. “I thought you were a little bit lazy in the gym. Very skilled and talented, but a little lazy as fighters go.”
I had thought of Mir as many had, particularly after the 2004 motorcycle accident that broke his femur and threatened his career. And I told him what I thought, and congratulated him for making a complete and utter liar out of me and many others. The way Mir responded spoke volumes about him. He just looked me in the eye, let me have my say, and even shared some of the techniques such as that uppercut/jab hybrid that came at a weird angle and kept rocking Big Nog. He was a gentleman the entire time, never raising his voice, never becoming defensive. I’ve spoken with Frank Mir many times since then, not always in agreement on issues, and I’ve been impressed by how thick-skinned he is to the criticisms that every fighter must endure. Mir is a very confident man, a nimble heavyweight who thinks like a lightweight, who can pull off moves most heavyweights wouldn’t dare try. And I must say, the big guy has come a long way in the gym and it shows because now he can fight three rounds hard. I learned my lesson never to count him out. In addition to being a wordsmith, Mir is a technician, and if his wrestling continues to improve, as it has, the 32-year-old BJJ black belt is going to really be able to keep opponents guessing.
I was one of the people who thought Mir’s win over Nogueira may have been a fluke, but I don’t think so any more. Mir is just that good. Big Nog has only fought three times in the past three years, but says he feels rejuvenated after three surgeries. The win over Brendan Schaub was one of those turn-back-the-clock moments for Nog and he’s going to have revenge on his mind Saturday in Toronto. He thinks it was a staph infection that weakened him against Mir. That’s what makes this rematch so intriguing. Fluke or Trend? We'll find out Saturday.