Beneath the stoic, Zen-like exterior of Lyoto Machida burns a lesson as bright as the lights of UFC 129: never stay in one spot.
The former champion found himself searching for answers since a two-fight slide halted his masterful run in the UFC's light heavyweight division. And for the past three months, Machida (16-2) has been looking for clues on how to defeat MMA legend Randy Couture.
What he discovered along the way, simply, is that his training needed a pick-me-up.
It seems the karate dojo in Belem, Brazil, where he and his brothers grew up under the tutelage of father Yoshizo Machida had temporarily become more factory than laboratory, and the kinetic, unpredictable tools he had used in the cage had not led to new ones.
Perhaps his unpredictability had become too predictable.
Asked about the threat of a third consecutive loss, against Couture (19-10), the UFC Hall of Famer with whom he squares off before 55,000 fans at Toronto's Rogers Centre on Saturday, Machida has concluded he has to keep his feet moving -- and not just when it comes to popping off a body kick or a straight left.
"You constantly need to be changing," Machida said through translator and manager Ed Soares in a recent conference call.
Stagnancy is an issue as old as, well, karate, and it follows countless competitors who have reached the mountaintop and stumbled. Here's a basic recipe, give or take a few ingredients: A fighter storms up the ranks, takes the title and, somewhere along the line, loses sight of what brought success in the first place. The fighter gets figured out and the jig is up. Only the rare few figure out how to stay ahead of the pack over the long term. Most of the time, the impetus for change is seen in the rearview mirror.
Likewise, the 32-year-old Machida realized he needed to look back when he started losing ground. Sure, he faltered when Mauricio "Shogun" Rua caught his chin and knocked him out last May at UFC 113 in a rematch of their controversial meeting at UFC 104. But a narrow points loss to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson last November at UFC 123 told him something was going wrong in his approach, and he needed to shake things up.
"I realize now that when you're winning and when you're the champion, that's when you constantly have to be evolving, because everybody is gunning for you," Machida said.
Not too long ago hailed as a fighter so talented as to be deserving of his own era in mixed martial arts, the Brazilian now finds himself in a battle to stay within striking distance of the light heavyweight title. Standing between him and relevancy is the soon-to-retire Couture, who couldn't care less about a title shot and instead wants a nice sunset with a win over the enigmatic "Dragon."
And while Machida would probably like to change the timing and consequences of his lesson, it has readied him to face an opponent of Couture's stature.
"Randy Couture has built a history in the sport," Machida said. "He's helped build the sport to what it is today, and he just feels honored to be able to fight him."
Meanwhile, the 47-year-old Couture has promised nothing less than a hunt-and-smother attack that could leave Machida very little time to establish an offense.
In 14 years of MMA, Couture knows a thing or two about reinvention. He's wrestled wrestlers and struck with strikers, brought into training camp body doubles of his opponents -- whatever needed to make sure he put the guy standing across from him at his weakest point. That could be why he's a little skeptical about the appearance of a new Machida.
"I don't think he's going to change his fighting style wholesale ... in 10 weeks," Couture said. "It's not going to happen. I think both of us know what to expect. He's going to run away and try to draw me into that range where he likes to be, and I'm going to try to pressure him and cut him off and get my hands on him."
Not surprisingly, Machida has been tight-lipped about the tools and tactics he plans to bring to the cage. But he insists that he's well prepared to deal with the pressure Couture will bring. You won't catch him standing still.
"I feel that out of respect, I want to give my best to Randy Couture," Machida said. "I think it plays an important part not only in history, to be the last guy to fight Couture, but I think it plays a big part in my career, to have a legend like Randy on my résumé."