Josh Gross
Sunday May 24th, 2009

'Round and 'round we go, Machida or Evans nobody knows. Well, not for another hour or so.

One of the most strategically compelling fights in UFC championship history, Rashad Evans' first defense of the organization's light heavyweight title puts him in the Octagon Saturday a decided underdog against Brazil's Lyoto Machida.

Blame it on a lack of respect for "Sugar" Rashad if you like -- without a doubt the 29-year-old former Michigan State wrestler stands as the least appreciated champion on the UFC roster -- but much of the support for Machida begins and ends with a confounding karate-centric striking that's propelled him to a perfect stint in the UFC. 1:45 a.m.: First things first, because I know many of you will email -- and I'm happy to receive 'em -- I deserve to eat whatever crow I have coming my way. I couldn't have been more off in predicting Evans to win. If Lyoto really is as good as he was tonight, I don't have any qualms about being a fool that picked against him. One thing mixed martial arts has lacked are dominant, long-reigning champions with pristine records. Consider it a byproduct of the unpredictable nature of the sport. There are countless ways for bouts to finish, and to continually have your hand raised is a feat few fighters have experienced. Now 15-0, Machida, like Fedor Emelianenko and maybe Miguel Torres, could be on his way to fulfilling that kind of promise. A run in a division as deep as light heavyweight would be a special feat, eclipsing, I think, what Emelianenko has accomplished at heavyweight when you consider the caliber and consistency of the competition. The new champion has a long way to go, but based on his skill and resume, it's exciting to ponder where he'll rank by the time his career is over.

12:38 a.m.: Speaking of his strategy, Evans said he hoped to make Machida strike first. "But he's very clever," said the fallen champion. "He has excellent timing. I just didn't come out sharp enough today." I'm not sure it would have mattered had he been in the zone. Machida's tactics and (I can't say this enough) defense -- a totally underutilized facet of the fight game in MMA -- will make him a force for many years to come. Just brilliant, the kind of performance that leaves me thinking he is capable of putting a Emelianenko type of run together

12:34 a.m.: "Karate's back!" Machida yells after the fight. "Machida Karate!"

12:33 a.m.: The official time of the fight comes at 3:57 of Round 2. I felt Evans was the kind of fighter that would stay at the top of the division for quite a while. But Machida put an end to that, and he deserves all the credit in the world, because he put away a heck of a fighter. Fighting and martial arts is Machida's life, and tonight he shut up all doubters, myself included.

12:30 a.m.: Amazing performance from the Brazilian, whose defense and counter-striking are without a doubt the best in mixed martial arts. The UFC now has light heavyweight champion an undefeated, untouched, unbelievable fighter, who will hold the belt for a long time to come.

Round 2: Well, there's the counter of a counter. Evans landed his best punches as Machida moved forward after a half-hearted attack from the champion. It's like a double bait and switch, and could be the only way he gets close enough to hit the Brazilian. ...Good kick from Evans is deflected, but he'll need to throw that type of stuff to change Machida's vantage point. ...Evans is in trouble. Machida connects with a perfect counter left, and followed with a left hook. The champion doesn't have his legs and is getting battered across the cage, smiling as he's taking shot after shot. A left to the jaw puts Evans down cold along the cage fence, his head hanging at an odd angle. Absolutely brilliant from Machida. Round 1: Machida, standing southpaw as usual, takes the center of the cage. Evans is dancing back moving to his left -- away from Machida's power -- near the cage fence. ...Sixty seconds down. One strike, a short jab of a low kick from the challenger. ...High kick from Machida is blocked by Evans, who finally advances with two winging overhand rights. Neither connects. ...If this is the story of the fight, both men will have opportunities to steal rounds. The final 30 seconds could dictate who captures each stanza. A kick to Evans midsection connects, and Machida also lands a counter left hand. Evans is dancing and feinting. ...A kick followed by straight left drops Evans. Beautiful combination from the challenger. To his credit, Evans is back on his feet. A half minute remains. ...Evans jukes and jives like a halfback trying to get in range to punch. But the bell for the opening round sounds. Machida, untouched, takes Round 1, 10-9. Evans is prone to give away early rounds. He did it against Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin. And he did it to set up finishing strikes. But Machida's defense is brilliant, and Evans can't rely on a mistake to find an effective strike. At this point, the range favors Machida. Evans is fighting too far on the outside, not that he's had a choice thus far. 12:17 a.m.: Bouncing in his corner as ring announcer Bruce Buffer calls out his particulars, Evans is smiling. He walks to the center of the cage, both arms raised, looking up at a crowd that booed him at Friday's weigh-in.

12:15 a.m.: Height and reach differences are negligible. The referee tonight: Mario Yamasaki.

12:12 a.m.: Redman's "Time for Some Action" greets Evans' walk to the cage. Ironic considering all the pre-fight talk of a fight that could be slow. He's bouncing and moving through the crowd. If he's at all fazed by the enigma that is Machida, the UFC champion hasn't shown it.

12:10 a.m.: Machida slips in a blue mouthpiece, stoicly makes his way to the edge of the cage and bows his respect.

12:07 a.m.: Locker room shots of Evans and Machida paint a pretty clear picture of their personalities. Evans, dancing and singing along to music heard over full-sized headphones, looks like he's about to head out to a Vegas hotspot. Lyoto, meanwhile, stretches while wearing a gi kept shut by the black belt handed to him by his father and martial arts master, Yoshizo Machida, at the age of 13.

11:59 p.m.: Round 3 was Serra's best. Following a driving takedown from Hughes, Serra fought well from his back, threatening with a triangle before Mazzagatti stood them up with 1:45 remaining in the fight. Countering a takedown, Serra tossed the powerful Hughes on his back and worked from the top to close out the final period, which belongs 10-9 to Serra -- making it 29-28 Hughes from my seat. Judges at ringside agree with the winner and score, tying Hughes all-time with Chuck Liddell with 16 wins in the UFC.

11:51 p.m.: Slow and steady for Hughes in Round 2. A takedown from double underhooks put Hughes on top of Serra, where he peppered the New Yorker's ribs and connected with several shots to his head. Serra didn't look for a submission or sweep, and only stood when referee Steve Mazzagatti broke the pair with 10 seconds remaining. 10-9 Hughes

11:45 p.m.: We're through one round in the hyped, long-awaited grudge match between former UFC welterweight champions Matt Hughes and Matt Serra. An accidental headbutt felled Hughes early, but the longtime 170-pound king survived, recovered and took the period on my card, 10-9. A nice takedown and back control were the difference. And Serra gets no credit in my book for the clash of heads.

11:37 p.m.: Opening the pay-per-view portion of UFC 98, Sean Sherk employed a brutally ineffective strategy against Frankie Edger and suffered for it.

Deciding for the second consecutive fight to forsake the wrestling game that brought him to the precipice of a UFC welterweight title, and later delivered the organization's 155-pound championship, the short-armed Sherk attempted to box a quicker Edgar. In doing so, he gave away rounds one and two without so much as a hint of a takedown. When he finally made an effort in the third, Sherk (33-4-1) easily landed a powerful double-leg. But by that time Edgar established an effective rhythm and Sherk hardly had anything left. Edgar (10-1) shut down two more takedowns, out-struck Sherk on the feet by a wide margin, and earned a unanimous decision, 30-27, on all cards.

Why fighters continue to get away from what makes them effective with a mind on being "exciting," I'll never understand.

11:17 p.m.: Marking the first UFC title fight between undefeated competitors, Evans-Machida has been fun to debate. (Some fear the pre-fight discussion will be more intriguing than the bout itself. Don't count me in that group.) Expect a clash with enough strategy, feinting and counter-fighting to fill the next three UFC pay-per-views. My hope is the talented pair will engage enough to make it a bout to remember. As noted earlier in the week, I like Evans (13-0-1) on points. Machida (14-0) may very well have the style and ability to walk out of the cage a champ tonight, but I favor Evans' speed, power, movement and wrestling.

If Evans is effective early, and that would be surprising since he's a slow starter, it wouldn't surprise me if Machida closes ranks and plays a purely defensive game. Then again, the challenger's footwork and defense could force Evans into a mistake. Guess the debate rages on.

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