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The Rear Naked Column 10.30.2013: Under-Appreciated Genius
Posted by Samer Kadi on 10.30.2013

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They say you only have one chance to make a first impression. For Lyoto Machida, this statement rings a bit too true. On April 21 2007, Machida made his UFC debut by taking on David Heath. The Brazilian spent fifteen minutes in full control, displaying his now trademark "elusive" style on his way to an emphatic decision victory. Emphasizing efficiency, technique, effectiveness and quality, Machida spent the first two rounds peppering his foe with kicks to the body, without absorbing a single significant strike. Predictably, this disciplined, methodical approach was not met with overwhelming approval, and even a brutal third round flurry of knees that almost put Heath away did not salvage the performance in the eyes of the crowd.

Joe Rogan's compliments of Machida did not help, and in fact verged on the counterproductive. In praising the Karate expert's technical mastery, he made sure to remind us that this style does not tend to endear itself to MMA's bloodthirsty masses a statement he so constantly reasserted in Machida's later bouts that it conditioned the audience to react accordingly.

Following a similarly rock-solid but unspectacular performance against Kazuhiro Nakamura in his next fight, Machida was paired up against Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou, who had taken the MMA world by storm in back-to-back brutal upsets of Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Ricardo Arona. It was hoped that "The African Assassin" would put a stop to Machida's rise, and rid the UFC of a potential headache. In what was dubiously considered an upset, Machida toyed with his opponent yet again, before ending his night with an arm triangle. And yet, if you listen to the commentary, as well as all the post-fight narratives, you'd swear Machida had earned himself another "boring" decision. Once a reputation sticks, it absolutely glues, and there seemed to be little Machida could do to change that reality.

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Ironically, in his next fight, it became Machida's turn to do the UFC a favor and send Tito Ortiz out with a loss in what was thought to be Ortiz's "last ever" bout for Zuffa, and he duly obliged. However, despite a surprisingly entertaining bout, Machida's unfair notoriety for dull performances remained intact. At that moment, "The Dragon" decided to take matters in his own hands. Machida publicly pledged to deliver more exciting performances, in spite of the fact that it was far from paramount, and produced a breathtaking display to dispose of then undefeated Thiago Silva with a picture perfect diving overhand right.

That knockout marked the first of five absolutely sensational finishes that left each of Machida's opponents completely out cold. His title-winning KO of Rashad Evans remains one of the best in UFC history, while the crane kick that sent Randy Couture's tooth flying embodies Lyoto Machida's wizardry in a nutshell. A typically brilliant counter-right hand knockout of Ryan Bader served as a reminder of the genius this man truly is, and his left high kick KO this past weekend was right out of the "Cro Cop" playbook.

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The fact that every single one of the aforementioned KO's left Machida's opponent totally unconscious is a testament to his technique, timing and precision. For someone who isn't necessarily lauded for otherworldly power, Machida sure separates opponents from consciousness with admirable regularity. And therein lies Machida's virtuosic artistry in a sport where the best two heavyweights on the planet have little to no sense of footwork, head-movement, and overall defense, a sport with a light heavyweight champion who, for all his brilliance, barely throws a proper punch, witnessing a fighter who can so seamlessly combine precision, educated technique, and tactical awareness is a privilege. And yet, instead of being universally celebrated, Machida is often outcasted. A man who, in the past five years, has produced as many jaw-dropping finishes and took part in one of the most underrated title fights in UFC history against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (and unfairly saw the vitriol directed at him following the judges' outrageous decision), still can't shake off a reputation he harshly acquired six years ago. It reached a point where anything short of fireworks is utterly blown out of proportion, and treated like the biggest sleep-inducing bout of the year (case in point, his fight with Phil Davis).

More aggravating is 16 years veterans of the sport like Dan Henderson making comments such as "he did a good job not fighting," which is the sort of statement that is only going to get echoed by the many detractors who are uninformed enough to know better.

None of this is to suggest that Machida's style is the end-all be-all blueprint to be copied by future generations of mixed martial artists, nor does it suggest that there is no flaw to his game. After all, Jon Jones' technique may leave a lot to be desired, but that didn't stop him from leaving Machida motionless on the canvas. Admittedly, the Brazilian may at times lack urgency in key moments, and fight a little too passively. And though this does not excuse the dreadful scorecards that saw him lose to Phil Davis and Quinton Jackson (although some believe the latter was the rightful call as they continue to mistake holding someone against the fence with "Octagon control"), Machida could have put a stamp on either of those bouts by being a touch less selective with his attacks, especially given his striking superiority.

Nevertheless, a distinction should be made between criticizing these holes from a pure technical perspective, and using them to mindlessly chastise Machida for being "boring." Since his finish of Sokoudjou, Machida has been in a grand total of one bout that could be described with that all too frequently used "B word," and that was his fight with Dan Henderson (I have no problem admitting I didn't find the fight to be nearly as offensive as most). Everything else ranged from decent to downright magnificent, with a good chunk of his performances leaning towards the latter.

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Selective memories never cease to amuse, as it seems as though at times, MMA fans have the shortest memories in the world, only for that to change when convenient. As recently as 2012, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson was still perceived to be a knockout artist with a knack for exciting bouts, despite the fact that not since his 2008 KO of Wanderlei Silva had he put anyone away, or engaged in a highly entertaining battle for that matter. Jackson was living off his PRIDE days and early UFC run, and that seemed enough. Meanwhile, Dan Henderson, who was once nicknamed "Decision Dan" and notorious for inconsistent and at times, outright abominable performances, gets an admittedly understandable pass due to his later exploits (and the fact that he happens to load up on his overhand right while throwing technique out the window).

At this point, it is time to abandon prejudices, double standards, stubborn misconceptions, and recognize Lyoto Machida for what he is: A true artist -- a genius who does things most fighters can't even fathom.

That will do it for another week of "The Rear Naked Column". As always, feedback is greatly appreciated. You can send in your comments, e-mails, or you can follow me on twitter right here for all things MMA, video games, sports, and other nonsense.


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