By Ben Fowlkes
May 29, 2009

So this is "The Lyoto Machida Era" in mixed martial arts. That's what everyone is saying, anyway, with a certain unmistakable reverence. Think the Ming Dynasty and Roman Empire all rolled into one. That's the kind of dominant reign the MMA world is expecting. But as far as challengers go, it's starting to look like the Machida Era is not going to get off to the best possible start.

It's not Machida's fault. All he's done is claim the UFC light heavyweight title with a victory so one-sided he's been hailed as one of the organization's most dominant champions before even making a single defense. He put away a quality opponent in Rashad Evans, and did it while taking just a handful of punches in the process. For a guy who couldn't buy a title shot a few months ago, you can't ask for much more than that.

But great champions aren't forged by winning the belt so much as they are by defending it, and it's here where the UFC's logic starts to get a little fuzzy. The organization announced yesterday that Evans and fellow former champ Quinton "Rampage" Jackson would face one another in December after a stint as opposing coaches on Spike TV's The Ultimate Fighter reality series. That means Jackson, the consensus No. 1 contender in the division, won't get a crack at the champ for at least another nine months or so.

That's fine with Jackson. In fact, he prefers it that way, maybe because it gives him more time to rest and heal before he climbs into the Octagon again and maybe because he's not terribly thrilled at the prospect of facing Machida at all. But while the UFC is exploiting the rivalry between Evans and Jackson for ratings on Spike TV, they also seem intent on cooking up a challenger for Machida in the meantime, just because they can.

The trouble is there isn't much to choose from in the light heavyweight rankings. Forrest Griffin is coming off a loss and has already committed to face Anderson Silva this summer. Dan Henderson is only a part-time 205-pounder these days, and he's got an impending date with Michael Bisping once their coaching tenures run out. That essentially leaves Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, who seems like the favorite to get the shot at the moment, though the potential matchup wouldn't make much sense.

It's not that Rua isn't a good fighter. In his Pride days, he was an absolute terror. Then again, so was Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic. Since coming to the UFC, Rua has looked mediocre at best. Knee injuries led to him dropping his first fight to Griffin, and then he rebounded with wins over an instantly exhausted Mark Coleman and an aging-before-our-very-eyes Chuck Liddell. The latter win was more about Rua proving he could still compete than about proving he was worthy of a title shot.

Regardless of what he did in Pride, the fact is Rua hasn't beaten a fighter who was coming off a win since 2006. That doesn't mean he's washed up. He could easily pull it together and become the Muay Thai buzzsaw that he once was, but you don't get a title shot based on what you did a few years ago. At least, you shouldn't.

The UFC is taking the fifth-ranked light heavyweight and making him the top contender for one reason only: it's convenient. It allows the promotion to hype Evans and Jackson while injecting some life into its reality series. And it also gives the UFC an excuse to keep Machida busy.

You can really only appreciate the irony in this situation when you consider what it took for Machida to get his title shot. He racked up an undefeated record, schooling several top-10 fighters and rarely looking the least bit vulnerable. And even then it took an injury to Frank Mir to force the promotion to go scrambling for a main event at UFC 98 and an injury to Rampage to ensure that Machida was the beneficiary of that scramble.

In other words, it took almost everything short of an act of God to get Machida in the cage with Evans. So why should the UFC pass over an obvious contender in Jackson to get to a lower-ranked fighter whose case is built entirely on how good he used to be in Japan?

It's not that Machida-Rua is a bad fight. It's actually kind of interesting in the sense that we never know which Rua will show up until fight night, and if it's somehow the one from 2005 he might stand a better chance than the increasingly one-dimensional Jackson.

But it's still bizarre to see the UFC deciding title fights based on little more than who's available. It's like a political party choosing their presidential candidate based on who doesn't have anything planned for the next four years. It makes you wonder, if Rua had been booked or injured, would they have just continued down the line until they found a warm, 205-pound body to toss in against the champ? If you can make a case for Rua based on his victory over a Liddell, who was 1-3 in his previous four fights, could you make one for Keith Jardine or Luiz Cane?

It would be nice if there was some identifiable path to a title shot. Instead the UFC is starting to look more like boxing, where the guy who gets to fight for the belt is the guy the promoter thinks he can sell.

But if I'm Machida right now a part of me is thinking about the 14-0 run it took to get me my moment in the sun. A part of me is remembering all the times I was overlooked and ignored, and how long I might have continued to be ignored had I not gotten a few lucky breaks. That might make me feel just a little bit perturbed that a guy on a two-fight win streak against two aging former greats is now getting the chance I labored for, simply because it's convenient.

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