Ask Dan Henderson or Randy Couture. Ask "Shogun" Rua or Rashad Evans. Ask any of the 19 fighters Lyoto Machida has defeated over his decade-long career in mixed martial arts. Ask even the guys who've managed to defeat "The Dragon," for that matter. They all will tell you the same thing.
They all will tell you that Machida takes some getting used to inside the octagon. It's not until then, when he's right across the cage and being waved toward you, that you are confronted by the experience of fighting Lyoto. With most bouts, you've sparred with a reasonable facsimile of your opponent for weeks during training camp. You've brought in a wrestler to test your takedown defense. You've tangled with a jiu-jitsu black belt capable of twisting you into a pretzel for you to practice your escapes. You've felt in the gym a little bit of what you're going to feel on fight night.
You cannot prepare yourself for Machida in that way, however, because for Lyoto there are no reasonable facsimiles. His background in Shotokan karate shows in his upright stance, turned sideways, legs spread widely. But he calls his style Machida karate because of its idiosyncrasies. His elusiveness is owing in part to his slighty backward lean, but it's also a product of footwork and a patient temperament. He will coil himself in seeming passivity, but he's deliberately waiting to counter any attack you bring. And when his counterstrike comes, often it takes only one to make the fight his.
Machida is a master at putting you to sleep and then putting you to sleep. How do you train for that? Ask anyone Lyoto has fought. You cannot enter the cage adequately prepared.
Mark Muñoz might tell you differently. Actually, he probably wouldn't tell you anything of the sort, because he's more the type to quietly and inwardly hold onto what he has, what he knows. But make no mistake, the 2001 NCAA Division I wrestling champion and two-time All-America has something useful on his side going into Saturday's meeting with Machida in the main event of a UFC Fight Night card in Manchester, England (3 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 2). For at least a short stretch in his camp, he had the perfect training partner for preparing oneself for Lyoto Machida. That training partner was Lyoto Machida.
Muñoz was actually training for a different opponent and so was Machida when the two spent several days working out together last month in a California gym. Mark was readying himself to fight Michael Bisping in the Brit's hometown, but a detailed retina detatched Bisping from the fight. The UFC called on Machida, who was scheduled to face Tim Kennedy in the top-billed bout at a Fight for the Troops event on Nov. 6 at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. Lyoto didn't want to change fights, but he knew the promotion was without many options. Having declined short-notice bouts before and taken criticism for it, Machida agreed. So now he'll be in the cage with an opponent who'll walk in with a deeper understanding of his uncommon style than past foes have.
"We trained together, so he knows my game," Machida (19-4) acknowledged. "He knows how I can attack him."
Does that give him pause? Machida pondered the question for a few moments, then gave a quiet laugh. "I'm telling you," he finally said, "that I have a trick up my sleeve."
Ah, a different sort of cryptic from Machida. Whatever adjustments he forces upon Muñoz (13-3), though, he's putting himself through a more significant one. The former UFC light heavyweight champion will be fighting for the first time at middleweight. When we spoke on Wednesday, he said he was within six pounds of the 185-pound limit and that the cut had been "step-by-step and comfortable." He sounded confident that all he's losing here is weight.
"When I fought at 205, I felt very much faster than those guys," said Machida. "But I was not stronger than them. Now I think I am faster than most of the guys that fight at 185, and I am stronger. I can use both powers."
Machida needed to change something. Despite his once-upon-a-time story line of being untouchable, his standing had taken some hits. Ever since he made his only successful defense of the light heavyweight belt in a much-disputed decision victory over "Shogun" -- the judges were unanimous in his favor, the fans and media nearly unanimous in Rua's -- it's been a rocky ride. He's lost four of seven fights. His last two, a win over Dan Henderson and a loss to Phil Davis, were tightly contested decisions that didn't win him many fans. It's time to reassert himself.
Machida understands that. He accepts the challenge. "Yes, I have to be more clear, I have to be more efficient, I have to be more aggressive," he said. "I have the game to beat everybody, but I have to prove this. You will see on Saturday night. I want to invite all of my friends to watch, all of the UFC fans, because the fight is going to be great. It's going to be better than any rock 'n' roll show."
Even with his dance partner being a friend? This is not entirely unprecedented for Machida. He did face his older brother, Chinzô, in a karate tournament in Brazil. But that experience won't make this weekend any more pleasant. "It's very weird for me to face my friend Muñoz, but that is a part of my job," said Lyoto. "I have to face this as a professional. We're both professionals. And after our fight we're going to be friends again. We're always friends."