The fist was cocked. It didn't need to be thrown. So it wasn't thrown.
Lyoto Machida had just floored Mark Muñoz with a head kick with just under two minutes to go in the first round of the main event of a UFC Fight Night event on Saturday in Manchester, England. He moved in to pounce. Referee Leon Roberts moved in too. The fighter got there first, though, and for a moment it appeared that we were about to witness unabated brutality. But Machida hesitated, allowing the ref time to arrive for a quick assessment of the situation. As Roberts waved off the bout, Lyoto's destructive fist hovered, tensely and ominously.
That's what friends are for.
"It's very hard for me because Mark is a good friend for me," Machida said after having his hand raised as the knockout winner at 3:10 of the round, making him an eye-opening force in his middleweight debut. "But, you know, as a professional I don't think about that. I have to just do my job here."
Machida was being too modest, even nonchalant. Clearly, he was thinking of the friendship, or at least of sportsmanship, when he held back on unloading an unnecessary blow to the head of a fallen, dazed friend and foe.
What put Muñoz on the canvas wasn't so friendly. But it did tell a story.
The backstory of this fight had been that Machida and Muñoz were training together as recently as last month, when each was preparing for a different bout. Then, Muñoz's opponent dropped out. Machida got a phone call, and voila we had Machida vs. Muñoz.
And when Machida launched that headkick and Muñoz lifted his right hand to his ear to defend, you got the feeling that this was a déjà vu moment for both. How many times had they sparred this very exchange in the gym? The difference: In the gym, a fighter doesn't throw those kicks at a training partner with full power behind them. So even though Muñoz had his hand in proper position to block the kick, Machida's foot drove through it and glanced off the top of his cranium, crumbling him onto his back.
"Sorry about that, my friend," Machida said to Muñoz afterward in the cage. "But it's a job."
And where does that job take "The Dragon" from here? As if his pedigree as a former light heavyweight champion isn't enough, defeating a highly ranked middleweight puts Machida squarely in the mix among 185-pound challengers. Muñoz (13-4) came in at No. 7 in the SI.com rankings, No. 5 in the UFC's media-voted tally. He had won five of his last six bouts, the lone loss coming against future middleweight champ Chris Weidman. Beating the two-time All-American wrestler (and 2001 NCAA Division I champ) is an accomplishment, particularly for someone getting used to a new weight class.
Machida (20-4), whose knockout was his third in his last four victories, is ranked seventh among light heavies by SI.com, No. 6 in that division's UFC rankings. Being that he said after the fight that middleweight will remain his home, expect to see him somewhere in the 185-pound Top 10. Expect to see him in the mix of title challengers, too, particularly if Weidman retains the belt in his Dec. 28 rematch with Anderson Silva. Machida and Silva have been friends and training partners for years, and have avoided facing off in the octagon. That's one reason Lyoto fought at 205 pounds to begin with.
Another reason was that Machida had the precision and power to knock out light heavies. Now he's shown that he has the speed to do the same to a middleweight. Even a friend. Even when he didn't want to.
"I am pleased with the result," Machida said afterward, "but I am a little upset because you don't want to hurt your friend. I had a great camp, I am a professional, and sometimes you have to take a fight even if you don't want to do it."