Sadly, Machida vs. Mousasi bout has been overshadowed

Friday February 14th, 2014

Lyoto Machida, left, and Gegard Mousasi will be the featured combatants Saturday in Brazil.
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images/Getty Images

Mixed martial arts has no offseason. The fighting goes on and on and on, through every fleeting flip of the calendar page. Some weekends your cable bill gets a reprieve from the steady diet of $54.99 your UFC jones hungrily drains from you. Some weekends, like the most recent one, there are no lop-level tussles in the channel guide. Yet the beat goes on.

Consider what's gone down during the off week we just trembled through. A UFC fighter, arrested following a standoff with a SWAT team in south Florida, was charged with threatening his estranged wife and her jiu-jitsu trainer boyfriend with a gun, and was promptly detonated by the promotion. Another two fighters -- neither on the sport's uppermost level but both teammates of top UFC and Bellator names -- were shot and killed in separate incidents in Brazil.

In a less police-blottery event earlier in the week that more directly involved the UFC and Bellator, officials from the promotions, along with a few of their fighters, appeared together at a Washington news conference announcing a Cleveland Clinic study of combat sports head trauma. Seeing the promotional Hatfields and McCoys willingly join forces, you get the idea that the sport's top executives are viewing this issue with gravity, either from a pure safety-of-the-fighter angle or as a liability concern.

Then, on Thursday, news came that the UFC was canceling next weekend's pay-per-view co-main event because of a Rashad Evans leg injury. That really bummed out Daniel Cormier, who does have a family to feed, after all. So voila! The behemoth promotion went to a coffee shop drive-up window to find Cormier a new opponent. Really. UFC president Dana White called Pat Cummins at work, and while the two were talking, Cummins apparently was fired by a café manager who had customers waiting for their coffee. That was OK, because White had a new job for him: finishing nail for Cormier's restless hammer.

To be fair to Cummins, he was a two-time NCAA Division 1 All-America wrestler and is 4-0 as an MMA pro with all first-round stoppages, including one in Strikeforce. He's viewed as a prospect, so what an opportunity for him. And sure, it's good that Cormier isn't having to wait for a fight, especially with Evans requiring surgery. But the UFC had better not continue to sell us on Daniel's light heavyweight debut being a steppingstone into a title shot. This is a cha-ching payday that twists the meritocracy dial not even a little.

So much turbulence in an idle week, some of it sparking congenial sports debate, other aspects of it dark and even tragic.

Drowned out by all of this background noise is this weekend's big fight. Yes, there's a major MMA contest on Saturday night, way understated -- it took me long enough to get around to mentioning it, right? -- yet oddly fascinating. Lyoto Machida vs. Gegard Mousasi represents a dividing line among the sport's fandom. If you're into rock-'em-sock-'em slobberknockery, you might not even bother tuning into the UFC Fight Night main event in Jaraguá do Sul, Brazil (10:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1). But if striking at a technically high level -- as in, hit but don't get hit -- holds your interest, even through stretches where not much leather is flying, then don't miss this.

Machida (20-4), the 35-year-old former light heavyweight champion, appeared reborn in his middleweight debut in October, knocking out Mark Muñoz with a lightning-strike head kick in the first round. It was an eye-opening performance following a bunch of shut-eye ones at light heavyweight, where the Brazilian karate man had gone 3-3 since dropping the belt four years ago. His career needed a lift out of the doldrums, and a cut in weight seemed to do the trick.

Mousasi (34-3-2) is even newer to the 185-pound division. He is unbeaten in his last seven bouts, all at light heavy. But even though that run followed a stint as Strikeforce champ, the 28-year-old Dutchman's recent resume is not star-studded. Following a not-so-murderous row of O'Brien, Mizuno, Jardine, Izumi, St. Preux, and Kyle, Mousasi was scheduled to make his UFC debut last April against someone bigger in name and stature, Alexander Gustafsson. But "The Mauler" sustained a cut late in training camp and had to be replaced by Ilir Latifi. Who? That was basically Mousasi's sentiment on fight night, his biggest challenge seemingly to be containing his boredom while coasting to a unanimous-decision win.

This time there is the added excitement of high stakes, although mainly for Mousasi's opponent. "Yes, if Machida wins," Dana White told Fox Sports 1 recently, "he could possibly be next in line for a title shot." That's not a signed contract or even a handshake deal, but it's at least an acknowledgement that middleweight champion Chris Weidman's dealings with Brazil, which started with the two wins over Anderson Silva, are not likely to end with his Memorial Day fight with Vitor Belfort. Of course, instead of Machida it could be Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza waiting in the wings for the champ, if Souza's performance against Francis Carmont in Saturday's co-main event is more impressive than what Machida delivers in the marquee bout.

Mousasi isn't in the title-bout conversation yet. Neither, for that matter, is Carmont. Both are riding win streaks that, even with an upset on Saturday, probably would need to add a couple more notches. But that doesn't diminish Saturday night's importance in the least. An underdog is just a work-in-progress.

How does Mousasi progress, then? He's not as quick as Machida, and his strikes are not as stop-you-in-your-tracks lethal. But where he matches up well is in patience. Mousasi sometimes appears maddeningly passive while competing, and on Saturday night that might be his most potent weapon. He seems well-suited to resist the urge to leap in, like past Machida opponents have done to their detriment. Maybe he can draw Lyoto out of his counterpunching nature, in which case Mousasi's boxing background would come into play.

Or maybe Machida will wait for Mousasi to come toward him, and Mousasi will wait for Machida to make the first move. We could very well be in for a 25-minute staring contest.

But probably not. These fighters are well aware that it's not simply a "W" that gets you ahead in the UFC. You've got to add some "ow!" and turn it into a "Wow!" Wouldn't it be a treat to see two fighters with such skillful hands move willingly and courageously into each other's firing range? We're overdue for such engagement, after having to withstand such an uneventful off week.

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