The Last Dragon: Machida Bringing Karate Back

The commercial for UFC 104 features Lyoto Machida, the sun setting serenely behind him, performing karate kata on the waterfront. It’s an obvious homage/rip off of the Karate Kid, but it’s a character that is working for the half-Japanese, half-Brazilian fighter who has made the sudden transformation from despised villian to heroic champion.

For years Machida was one of the UFC’s least popular fighters. His karate based striking game, his penchant for avoiding punches, and his willingness to avoid contact, infuriated fans and opponents alike. Hardcore fans, and fellow fighters, however,embraced the undefeated star almost immediately. His ability to minimize danger, while maximizing his own opportunities to strike took an amazing amount of skill and discipline.

“I describe my style as precise,” Machida said. “It’s almost as if you had only a few bullets to shoot down a tiger, you have to be precise and can’t fire a wrong shot. Precision and not taking shots is very important.”

Perhaps, in those early fights, Machida erred on the side of caution. Four of his first five fights went to a decision. Yes, he was always on the winning end of the judge’s call-but fans wanted more. The light heavyweight division was filled with the sport’s most dynamic personalities and had for years been headlined by the head hunting Chuck Liddell. Machida karate was not what the crowd had come to expect. Most fighters will pretend not to be affected by the boos, and claim that winning was the only goal that mattered. Machida took the opposite tact.

“I want to please the fans,” the UFC Lightweight Champion said. “I took the criticism about my style as something constructive, I knew I had to finish fights for the fans, so I hired a strength and conditioning coach and have been training hard to do so.”

The difference has been stark. The new Machida has been much more aggressive, instead of just avoiding opponent’s blows he has been countering them with unorthodox and off balance punches and kicks of his own. His blows are deceptively light. Often off balance, he makes up for the power he loses in his hips with a pinpoint accuracy unseen before in MMA. The result has been two consecutive and devastating knockouts, the second a massacre of champion Rashad Evans to claim the UFC title.

After the fight an emotional Machida broke down. In his adorably broken English, the new champion encouraged fans to reach for their own dreams. It was his obvious effort to struggle with and embrace English, a stark contrast to fellow Brazilian champion Anderson Silva that endeared Machida to the UFC fanbase. His new found popularity has been exciting for a small town boy from Brazil. “All of a sudden there are a lot more fans everywhere I go,” he says. But the success has its price. Constant demands on his attention forced him to pack up shop and move his training camp to a secluded farm. There the champion can work out twice a day, meditate, and escape from being the UFC champion for a time. Despite these headaches, he intends to be champion for a long time. Machida wants to be more than a fleeting champion, a single name on a long list. He wants to set records, take on new challenges like heavyweight Brock Lesnar. He wants to be the best. The first test comes Saturday against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.

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