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Lyoto Machida remains driven by an undying passion to compete, even after 13 years and 33 fights in the sport. Two weeks removed from his 41st birthday, Machida will return to the cage at Bellator 222 on Friday at Madison Square Garden in New York with one goal in mind: take another step toward becoming a champion again.
“I like to challenge myself. I love this sport,” Machida told Sherdog.com. “When you have these feelings, you have to follow what you want to do. I already raised a belt in the UFC. Now I have a chance to raise another belt in Bellator.”
Competing north of 40 is common in combat sports. However, doing so competitively at the highest levels is not. For every Randy Couture, 10 others who try to mirror his success fail. In other cases, there are those who end their careers long before they reach the age of 40.
“You see people from other organizations, [and] they retire [in their 20s and 30s]. It’s because this sport is so competitive,” Machida said. “Sometimes they lose some fights and they don’t believe they can do it [at a high level] anymore, but because we are still here in our 40s, there has to be some respect. It’s not an easy path to train every day.”
Respect for elders is important to the man who has studied martial arts since he was 4 years old, especially when he feels he has maintained a legitimate level of relevance well past his prime. As such, the idea of “senior circuit” bouts -- something bandied about in media and fan circles in recent years --bothers him. Machida understands not all fighters beyond 40 continue to compete at a high level. However, men like “The Dragon” and Chael Sonnen -- his opponent at Bellator 222 -- believe their age should not automatically place them in a separate category.
“That bothers me a little bit because of the age,” Machida said. “You see Tom Brady in a different sport. He’s past 40 already, but he still [performs well]. We can do that in MMA, but it depends on the fighter. I still believe that I can [perform at a high level].”
Machida realizes not many athletes can excel at an advanced age. Most encounter tremendous difficulty in combating Father Time in the latter stages of their careers, and for some, retirement seems like a better option than continuing to fight. Machida can only speak for himself when explaining the mentality of a fighter who competes past his prime.
“I can only talk for myself,” he said. “Combat sports, I started training when I was 4 years old. I trained sumo, jiu-jitsu, karate, competing in all of those sports. It was to challenge myself all of the time. I like to challenge myself. I’m not tired of it. When you tire of it, you have to stop. You cannot do it for money.”
Machida believes motivation helps him maintain a high level of skill. His father, Yoshizo, instilled in him at an early age the idea of trying to beat yourself every day. At 74, Yoshizo still follows the ideology, as does his son.
“I motivate myself all the time,” Machida said. “When I fail, it’s OK. I come back to my home [and] I work hard, because I know I can pass this test. That’s my career. That’s what I like to do, to pass hard moments in my life. I still believe life has everything to do with that. Sometimes you don’t want to train; you train. Sometimes you don’t want to do something; you do it. When you beat yourself every day, emotionally you become sharper, and that’s the way that I think. [It’s about doing] what you love to do and [remembering] how you can help other people by being an example through your words, your fights [and] your attitudes.”
Machida at Bellator 222 will return to the light heavyweight division -- a weight class in which he has not competed since he left the Ultimate Fighting Championship. During his six-year run of success at 205 pounds, he racked up wins in 11 of his 15 appearances, including a knockout of Rashad Evans at UFC 98 that brought with it the undisputed light heavyweight title. After a UFC 163 loss to Phil Davis, the Brazilian took his talents to the middleweight division, where he compiled a 4-2 record, including a win over former 185-pound champion Rafael Carvalho in his Bellator MMA debut.
Although he remains open to returning to the middleweight division, light heavyweight offers key benefits to a 41-year-old. Machida claims he walks around at 218 pounds in between fights. With age comes greater difficulty in cutting weight. A return to light heavyweight would alleviate a lot of that pressure and allow him to go from eating three meals a day to five to fuel more intense training.
“I like to fight both,” Machida said. “I noticed that when I fight at 185, I lose a little bit of power or strength because of cutting weight, but that’s why I want to move to 205 again.”
Another incentive behind his return to the light heavyweight division is the speed advantage he feels it provides. However, Machida believes he can still compete with faster fighters at 185 pounds.
“I try to fight 205 because I still believe that I have [more] mobility and speed than the guys at [light heavyweight],” he said. “At 185, I can say that they have more mobility [and] speed than 205 guys.”
Machida calls his return to light heavyweight a “test,” not a permanent move, which makes his being paired with Sonnen interesting. The Oregon native has also bounced around several divisions over the last decade, from middleweight all the way up to heavyweight. Sonnen’s success throughout his career has been based around his vaunted wrestling skills. Although Machida sees Sonnen as a threat in several areas, he feels that if he can avoid the Team Quest fighter’s takedowns, he can dictate the action and unleash his strikes at maximum effort.
“Chael is a dangerous fight in any area,” Machida said. “He’s strong in wrestling. If I can avoid his wrestling, I can control the fight easily, more easily than if he uses his wrestling. Every punch [and] every kick I use is going to be with all of my strength, all of my will, all of my power.”
When combined with his previous victory over Carvalho and his 2012 knockout of current two-division Bellator champion Ryan Bader, a win against Sonnen would likely put Machida in contention for championships in two weight classes.
“I would like to fight at 185 and get the belt [or go back to fighting] at 205 and get the belt,” he said. “I want to be a champion in Bellator. That’s my goal.”