Lyoto Machida holds his UFC 129 opponent, Randy Couture, in high regard. | Photo: Dave Mandel
Lyoto Machida finds himself in a most unfamiliar position as he approaches his matchup with hall of famer Randy Couture at UFC 129 “St. Pierre vs. Shields” on April 30 at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. A man after whom an “era” was named not long ago will enter the Octagon on a two-fight losing streak, the trajectory of his career very much in doubt.
In Couture, he faces a competitor as revered as any in MMA.
“I always admired Randy’s work and always saw him as an idol,” says Machida, who opened his professional career with 16 consecutive victories. “He’s an idol, not only for me but for many people. I always imagined one day being able to fight against him, but I’d lost those hopes because I thought he’d retire.”
A five-time champion and one of only two men to hold UFC titles in two weight classes, Couture turns 48 in June. He has rattled off three straight wins since his 2009 return to the light heavyweight division. Couture’s last appeared at UFC 118 in August, when he dummied former boxing world champion James Toney with a first-round arm-triangle choke at the TD Garden in Boston.
Machida holds the Couture legacy in high regard.
“I always felt the most important part of all this is not only victory or defeat but being part of someone’s history,” he says. “It’s you being part of the story of a guy who helped build the sport. Being part of the history of the sport is what motivates me. I want to show him what I can use in the fight and give my best. That’s the best way I can show him respect.”
Couture’s extensive background in Greco-Roman wrestling poses problems for virtually any opponent, even at his advanced age. A three-time NCAA All-American at Oklahoma State University, he was an alternate on the United States Olympic team in 1988, 1992 and 1996. Machida wants to keep the fight out of the trenches.
“Of course, I’ll always train the ground and takedowns,” he says. “Nevertheless, I’ve trained hard in my karate, mixing in muay Thai and boxing. We have trained many situations, and I’ve trained hard to fight standing because I think this is a fight I cannot let happen much on the ground. If the fight goes to the ground, he might score points, and that’s the game he wants to play.”
Couture has made a living out of grinding on opponents in the clinch and on the ground. In addition, he has a vast reservoir of knowledge and big-fight experience upon which to draw. Couture’s 16 UFC title bouts, of which he has won 10, rank first on the all-time list, ahead of Matt Hughes (12), B.J. Penn (11) and Georges St. Pierre (10). Few are better when in control of a fight.
“He is very strong on top,” Machida says. “I’m very focused on the fight standing because that’s where I was born and where I always distinguish myself.”
Machida has tried to cover all his bases in advance of UFC 129, an event for which a record 55,000 tickets have been sold. The 32-year-old former light heavyweight champion spent time training at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif., and has enlisted the aid of WEC veteran Glover Teixeira. Machida believes Teixeira has intimate knowledge of Couture.
“First of all, Glover fits perfectly with our style; he’s a positive guy with good character,” he says. “He was a sparring partner of Chuck Liddell, who faced Randy three times. He knows how the training went with Chuck. That will help me a lot, not to mention that Glover’s a great athlete. He’s very strong in wrestling and also very heavy.”
Machida hopes a victory over Couture will serve as an important first step to reclaiming his seat atop the 205-pound division, a seat he surrendered in back-to-back defeats to Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. The loss to Rua in their May 2010 rematch was particularly difficult to stomach, as it marked the first -- and still only -- time Machida had been knocked out. It came only seven months after he had fought to a contentious unanimous decision victory over Shogun.
“I did not see myself losing to him,” Machida says. “I think I was even a little ahead in the score, but I do not decry [the loss] in any way. He won; that’s why fighting is so interesting. If you look closely, all opponents are complicated. The UFC only has great fighters, and there’s no way to observe from afar and say that perhaps the game of one fighter is better for the other.”
If Machida does regain his supremacy at 205 pounds, he figures to have to go through newly minted champion Jon Jones. The 23-year-old wunderkind blasted through Rua to capture the title with stunning ease at UFC 128 in March. Machida was one of many who took note.
“He’s blessed, genetically,” Machida says. “He’s a great guy and has the largest wingspan in UFC history. He profiles as an athlete. Just look at him. He always tries to keep himself trained and, above all else, he shows a seriousness for the sport. I think we’ve reached a plateau where if you aren’t serious or professional, your career is finished.”
Jones, the youngest champion in UFC history, has enjoyed a rapid ascent through the division and now ranks among the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world.
“I think Jones is a guy who has many resources and realizes it,” Machida says. “He doesn’t lose control. That not only makes him different; it makes him dangerous.”
Some see Machida’s unorthodox, counter-heavy style as potential kryptonite for Jones, who has shown no glaring weaknesses since arriving in the UFC. He does not believe one can compete with Jones in close quarters.
“Against a big guy, we cannot expose much in that distance,” Machida says. “Against that kind of guy, we cannot try to fight very close; we must try to fight with distance and be careful. I think more or less that’s the path.”
Jones, who trains under Greg Jackson in Albuquerque, N.M., brings phenomenal physical tools to the table. Blessed with an incredible 84.5-inch reach, the 6-foot-5, 205-pound champion has rattled off four consecutive victories -- all of them finishes -- since his disqualification loss to Matt Hamill at “The Ultimate Fighter 10” Finale in December 2009. His list of victims includes Rua, “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 8 winner Ryan Bader and former International Fight League champion Vladimir Matyushenko.
Machida relishes the idea of someday facing off with Jones, who figures only to improve as he enters his prime. First, he has to take care of Couture.
“I think every fight is very welcome, depending on the situation,” he says. “Nevertheless, I’m not in a situation where I can speak calmly about the belt. I’m still a little behind in the queue. I’m aware of all this. It’s not the time for me to talk, but surely Jones is a guy I would love to face. I don’t think he’s a bad matchup for me.”