Commentary

Machida ready to let his fists and feet do the talking

Not every fighter who steps into the cage can be brash, loud-mouthed and ultra-aggressive like Tito Ortiz. Lyoto Machida may not talk the talk the way Ortiz does, but his patient fighting style and all-around skills speak for themselves.

Originally Published: May 21, 2008
By Michael Woods | Special to ESPN.com

Lyoto MachidaGary M. Prior/Getty Images)Care for some leather? Lyoto Machida wants to give Tito Ortiz something to remember him by.
In case you haven't noticed, we are a supersized nation, in all respects.

It's the American way to voraciously and unapologetically consume not just calories, but also matters of grave cultural import  such as who among "The Hills" cast members is feuding with whom.

We request our fighters, by and large, to fall into a similar party line as we do our other treasured hobbies and leisure-time diversions: We revere them when they display a personality that is larger than life, when they can glibly talk the talk prefight and then follow that up by walking the walk with a distinctly conscienceless approach.

Do you think it's an accident that Kimbo Slice, owner of those previously mentioned attributes, and a sculpted-by-diamond-tipped-drill physique, is on the cover of the current issue of ESPN The Magazine?

[+] EnlargeLyoto Machida
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty ImagesMachida's unique style of fighting isn't always fan-friendly.
To that end, when Lyoto Machida was matched against Rameau Thierry Sokodjou at UFC 79, it was Sokodjou who fit -- as if delivered from central casting -- the American-dream model of blood-sport superstar-in-the-making: Sokodjou had solid trash-talking skills and an unquenchable thirst for concussive finishes, and his physique was a lightning rod for many a "Is he or isn't he on a dubious supplement regimen?" discussion among hardcore fans.

So what if Sokodjou was just 4-1, and his foe, the 29-year-old Brazilian Machida, had been fighting since he graduated out of diapers?

Marketers and some fight fans, prone to being swayed by lightning-quick KOs, predicted that the more blandly built Machida, with his deliberate style, would get steamrolled by "The African Assassin."

It didn't go down that way.

The son of a legit legend in Shotokan karate, Yoshido Machida, Lyoto Machida took up his father's brand of karate at age 3 and fine-tuned his skills with numerous sparring matches with his brother, Chinzo, who is one year his senior. He added another discipline to his tool belt when he took up jiu-jitsu as a teen in his native Brazil. Both skill sets were on display as he handed the Cameroon native a brutal lesson in well-roundedness.

Machida softened up the hulking African with his karate and then went about methodically breaking him down with some ground and pound as he scoured his foe for opportunities to close the show with a submission. The end came in Round 2, via arm triangle, applied after a deliberate softening-up period.

Those words -- "methodical" and "deliberate" -- have been applied to Machida (12-0) since he debuted in 2003, and usually not in a complimentary fashion. The 6-foot-1 counterstriker is a bit of a message-board whipping post, as many fans are turned off by his style.

On Saturday, Machida will get another chance to lure some of those detractors to change their view of him, when he enters the Octagon for the highest-profile bout of his career. At UFC 84 in Las Vegas, Machida will meet UFC legend Tito Ortiz (16-5-1), a second-generation MMA star who is laboring mightily, in between reality TV appearances, to restore his exalted status in the third U.S. phase of the sport.

This will be the fifth UFC start for Machida, who chatted with ESPN.com on Monday evening with his manager, Ed Soares, acting as translator.

A win against Ortiz, if obtained using less deliberation and more forcefully initiated thrusts of offense, would swiftly propel Machida into a top contender to potentially meet the Rampage Jackson-Forrest Griffin winner. But for this match, to get maximum traction among fans (read: make a bunch of them pony up willingly to buy this fight on pay-per-view), Machida would be well-served to recognize that in America, subtlety and admiration of form are out; brute aggression and frenetic work rate are in.

I have had to adjust my style to please the fans here. It is a show, and I am trying to provide a better show every time out in UFC.

-- Lyoto Machida, on being more aggressive inside the cage

Machida recognizes that a fighter is in the entertainment business, and to maximize earning capability, he must be less methodical. "I have had to adjust my style to please the fans here," Machida told ESPN.com. "It is a show, and I am trying to provide a better show every time out in UFC."

Soares stepped out of his role as translator and into that of manager as he explained Machida's evolution.

"Look at his last three performances," he said. "Against Nakamura, he actively tried to finish him. With Sokodjou, he'd been knocking people out and Lyoto submitted him. He's going to actively go out and improve every time. He will try to do the same Saturday. His goal is to win the fight and finish Tito."

UFC president Dana White makes no secret what type of fighter he likes to see. He wants a closer's mentality: someone who is busy, who is intent on trying to impose his will on his opponent in conclusive style. Machida, White said, is still a work in progress, still deciphering who he is as a fighter and what tweaks he needs to make to his game to get to where he wants to be, atop the light heavyweight division.

"The more he fights in the UFC," White said, "the more he'll look comfortable, more exciting. I've seen it happen, with Chuck [Liddell] and Matt Hughes, who went from being a ground-and-pound guy to being incredibly exciting. I do make it clear to every fighter that they know how important it is to be exciting."

Asked to furnish a prediction, White said he's leaning towards Machida in Saturday's faceoff; he's in the majority among those holding an opinion, as Ortiz has been concentrating more on out-of-the-ring endeavors lately, and he hasn't exactly looked scintillating when he has stepped in the cage.

"We have all the best fighters in the UFC and …"White said, in his patented verbal ground-and-pound manner, "Tito is no longer one of them."

White and Machida are both quick to state that Ortiz is no used-up trial horse or a mere record-padder. Machida expects Ortiz will have been training like a madman to try to knock off a young gun and get one more title crack.

"Ortiz has trained hard," Machida said. "He's a good wrestler and ground-and-pound fighter. Tito is a legend in the sport, and hopefully at the end Saturday, I can get my hand raised up."

Getting the hand raised is the point of the contest. Methodical or not, a win over Ortiz looks good on any resume.

Machida will try to punish Ortiz standing up, to test his 33-year-old belly with stiff kicks and to land a crisp KO crack to Tito's chin. There will be moments when Machida is methodical, maybe even inducing a spell or two of booing from Las Vegas fans disdainful of a deliberate dissection.

Yes, Machida's trash-talking game is nonexistent, and his personality is something less than larger-than-life. But he has too many techniques in his tool belt for the part-time fighter Ortiz to contend with. Still, every so often in America, substance does win out over style.

Michael Woods, the managing editor of TheSweetScience.com, has written for ESPN The Magazine, GQ and The New York Observer.

Michael Woods, a member of the board of the Boxing Writers Association of America, has been covering boxing since 1991. He writes about boxing for ESPN The Magazine and is the news editor for TheSweetScience.com.