Charlatanry (and Truth) in MMA

By Jordan Breen May 26, 2009
Earlier this year, two Swedish academics found themselves embroiled in a controversy about truth.

In December 2007, linguists Anders Eriksson and Francisco Lacerda published an article in the International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law, entitled “Charlatanry in Forensic Speech Science.” Their research gave an unflattering overview of the “science” behind lie-detecting technology over the last 50 years, much to the anger of the Israeli-based lie detector technology firm Nemesysco, which forced the journal to pull the article and threatened to sue for defamation this past January.

Of course, “truth” is often much more difficult than uncovering lies. Understanding how or why something happens can be fleeting, esoteric and fruitless. Fortunately, the sport of mixed martial arts has Lyoto Machida.

In sports, the “truth” of any matter tends to be readily visual. Points result from blown coverages, missed defensive rotations, ill-moving pitches and lazy back checks, all of which are instantly recognized on an instant replay if not on first glance. In those cases, the facts of a situation are clear. In MMA, the essence of winning and losing can be incredibly obvious -- a noticeable lack in the striking, wrestling and/or submission department -- but it can also be painfully elusive and obscure. With the speed of the sport and the depth of technique, it’s no wonder that people rely on inane clichés to explain victory or defeat. Saying a fighter “pushed the pace” or “just got caught” may in some cases be explanatory, but usually they’re empty platitudes that do little to show exactly how and why a fighter won or lost.

Machida is instant replay, super slow-mo, a telestrator and sodium pentothal all in one. Want to know what your favorite, seemingly well-rounded fighter is really doing wrong? Have him fight Machida. The smallest technical flaws that normally go unnoticed, let alone unpunished, will now become painfully obvious. Like any good trial, the truth will come out.

I felt strongly from the fight’s inception that Machida would beat Evans in dominant fashion. However, the nature of Machida splattering Evans still did surprise me slightly. My thought was that Evans would fail because of his faulty footwork, leaving him unable to close on Machida and land effective punches. Evans’ striking coach, Mike Winkeljohn, even publicly acknowledged his footwork was a work in progress before the bout. He moves his back foot first when he steps, takes his feet off the mat and relies far too much on upper body movement to beat a fighter with hyper-accuracy strikes, great footwork and a style predicated on keying on an opponent’s movement.

Photo by

Rashad Evans failed to
execute at UFC 98.
Still, I could not have imagined that Evans’ footwork would have been so visibly and vividly convicted. With just over a minute left in the first round, Machida caught Evans with his feet incredibly close together. A simple feint made Evans think leg kick, and he instantly brought his left leg up far too high. Instead, Machida landed a left body kick and short left hook that put Evans on the mat as he attempted to stand like a flamingo.

Watch the second round, as Evans repeatedly takes his lead leg off the floor for no reason. Take the sequence that begins with 90 seconds left in round two, and throw it in slow-mo. Evans crow hops toward Machida, taking his feet off the ground, and when he actually has his soles back on the mat, he picks his left foot up off the canvas again. Meanwhile, Machida, despite being in a wide stance and reaching across his body with his left cross, has his right foot firmly on the floor and ball of his left foot still on the canvas. When Machida’s punch makes impact, Evans is standing on nothing but his five right toes and, naturally, hits the floor again. Less than 30 seconds later, Evans was a gnarled heap of humanity.

Machida being technically dominant is nothing new, but it was the first time I took note of how glaring he made his opponent’s faults look. Upon opening up the library, I realized this was absolutely nothing new. It took him about two minutes to realize Thiago Silva didn’t tuck his chin or bring his hands back after engaging, which led directly to two brutal knockdowns and set the table for a first-round stoppage. Tito Ortiz’s reaction to Machida’s feints -- an incredibly high guard, shielding his own face -- made it easy for the karateka to smash up his legs and body, allowing for the brutal knee to the body that nearly ended the bout. Sokoudjou ... yeah.

Machida’s ability to put his opponent’s shortcomings on display with an unprecedented clarity is enormous for two reasons. First, MMA is a sport where fans, fighters and trainers still think in crippling generalities. Evans revealed after the bout that the plan for Machida was to make him attack first, seemingly to confront the superficial “counterstriker” tag the Brazilian had picked up during his UFC tenure. While that notion isn’t fundamentally folly, it gives little technical guidance as to what exactly Evans was going to do to actually close the distance and land punches against a fighter as consummate and opportunistic as Machida.

Since the new light heavyweight king is so adroit at recognizing and exploiting the specific technical snafus of his opponents, he wields an enormous amount of strategic power over his adversaries, who still talk about him in terms of his “karate base,” “angles” and “elusiveness.” Those concerned with defeating Machida have yet to understand the actual techniques he’s using to best them, which only fortifies his style going forward.

Secondly, if Machida capitalizes on instantaneous and minute details, what are the implications for fighting him? Many MMA fighters have found success in the ability to cloak their weaknesses, or at least diminish their impact. A fighter like Diego Sanchez may not have a strong shot, but his ability to create scrambles allows him to work on the ground. Chris Leben may be effortlessly hittable, but his power and chin have often atoned for it. Miguel Torres never seems remotely concerned with stopping takedowns, yet the dynamism of his ground game renders it a non-issue. These “masks” are no different than Evans’ upper body movement and hand speed allowing him to nuke Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin despite the same subpar footwork for which Machida bashed him.

If Machida was a one-trick pony, he himself would be covering up his own shortcomings. Instead, he is a complete fighter with a gift for strategy and recognition, while his contemporaries have yet to even approach an understanding of the techniques he’s using. Many of MMA’s best fighters have convinced their foes to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” -- a bit of clever deceit Machida has been soundly subverting, as he puts them under an unforgiving microscope.

I’m not sure who is the best candidate to beat Machida. I have seen too many fighters be declared unbeatable to feel comfortable with that idea any longer. However, I would strongly suggest that those who want to take the light heavyweight throne do away with the strategic mountebankery. Otherwise, 205-pounders should get used to discovering the bitterest truths about their fighting selves, right in the middle of the Octagon.
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