When Lyoto Machida won the Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight title with a savage second-round knockout of Rashad Evans at UFC 98, it felt like a coronation. After all, for several years “The Dragon” had been bewildering and confounding opponents on his way to a perfect 15-0 record, using a karate-based style that nobody had yet solved. Even those fans and peers who derided Machida as boring or decision-prone had been quieted by the Brazilian’s effortless back-to-back knockouts of the previously undefeated Evans and menacing Thiago Silva. When Machida celebrated across the Octagon from the unconscious Evans and UFC color commentator Joe Rogan proclaimed it the beginning of the “Machida Era,” it did not feel like hyperbole.
However, it turned out that proclamations of a new era in the light heavyweight division were somewhat premature. In his first title defense at UFC 104 in October 2009, Machida faced Mauricio Rua. “Shogun” was less than five years removed from winning the 2005 Pride Fighting Championships Middleweight (205 pound) Grand Prix, at which point he was considered the top fighter in the world in his weight class, but his star had fallen considerably due to a series of injuries. Joining the UFC after the disintegration of Pride, Rua had been booked in an immediate title eliminator against Forrest Griffin but had lost, clearing the way for the latter to challenge for—and win—the belt.
After taking over a year off for a surgical knee repair and rehabilitation, Rua bounced back with TKO wins over a 44-year-old Mark Coleman and a very much in decline Chuck Liddell. While those wins may have forestalled the notion that Rua’s multitude of injuries had rendered him a shot fighter at age 27, they did not inspire much confidence in his ability to compete with the untouchable “Dragon,” and he went into their first meeting as a 4-to-1 underdog.
The first Machida-Rua fight was a revelation, however, as the two men fought it out for five tense rounds. While reasonable minds could differ on who won, what was undeniable was that Rua had landed more hard, clean strikes than all of Machida’s other UFC opponents combined. Rua and his team had studied the unorthodox champion and come up with a brilliant game plan. Realizing that Machida landed most of his devastating counters off of his opponents’ punches, they put together a strategy that leaned heavily on their fighter’s brutal muay Thai kicks. Rua’s leg kicks, in particular, sapped the mobility upon which Machida’s style depended, all while limiting his ability to counter. Machida walked away with a unanimous decision, but many fans and media felt that “Shogun” had won.
Enough fans were screaming “robbery” that Machida and Rua were booked in an immediate rematch, which took place at UFC 113 on May 8, 2010. Whatever goodwill “Shogun” had accrued with his eye-opening performance in their first meeting, it was not enough to dispel the mystique around Machida entirely, and Rua remained a slight underdog according to every major sports book. Once the fight began, it became apparent that Machida had made some adjustments. As Rua resumed his strategy from their first fight, kicking hard, low and often at Machida’s legs, the champion went for an early takedown. After a sweep and a brief scramble, they stood, only for Machida to take down “Shogun” once more. When next they returned to their feet, Rua crushed Machida with a right hook, then swarmed with punches for the TKO finish at 3:35 of the first round. Suddenly, Rua was the UFC light heavyweight champion.
Of course, the Machida Era was only over in the narrow sense of his title reign. Machida would go on to spend most of the next decade as a Top 10 fighter, first at light heavyweight and then at middleweight, earning UFC title shots in both divisions before taking off for Bellator MMA in 2018. Rua lost the belt to Jon Jones in his first title defense but continued to defy expectations and still hovers around the light heavyweight Top 10, bad knees and all.
UFC 131 is also notable for the welterweight title eliminator between Josh Koscheck and Paul Daley. The fight itself was unremarkable, but the aftermath was quite memorable. Immediately after the fight, a frustrated Daley walked up behind Koscheck and took a swing, which half-glanced and was half-swatted away before referee Dan Miragliotta interposed himself. UFC President Dana White at the post-fight press conference proclaimed that he was cutting Daley and that the volatile Brit would never fight in the UFC again. While White has been known to say things in the heat of the moment that he later walks back, this was no idle promise: 10 years and 27 fights later, “Semtex” has yet to set foot in another UFC Octagon, plying his trade primarily in the British Association of Mixed Martial Arts, Strikeforce and most recently Bellator.