Machida has the goods to rule at 205
LAS VEGAS -- When Quinton "Rampage" Jackson ended Chuck Liddell's UFC light heavyweight reign in May 2007, the common belief was that he would retain the title for a long time. A year later, after only one successful defense, Jackson was an ex-champion.
Forrest Griffin upset Jackson to claim the crown, but his time at the top also was short-lived. Five months after becoming the world's best light heavyweight, Griffin succumbed to a Rashad Evans right hand.
Three champions in three fights; it was apparent that successfully defending the UFC 205-pound belt for any reasonable amount of time had become the most difficult task in mixed martial arts. Evans, however, seemed capable of returning order to the division.
He possessed power, hand speed, a good ground game and confidence. Although he had a few close calls en route to the top, Evans always found a way to succeed.
Even when he fell behind in fights, which had been the case in his most recent outings, Evans would solve matters with a powerful right hand. Although Evans had a poor relationship with UFC fans (they would shower him with boos whenever he was introduced or shown on a big screen), his explosive punching power was beginning to win many of them over.
Heading into his first title defense against Lyoto Machida at UFC 98 on Saturday, Evans was the underdog -- a familiar position for him. Yet more cheers than jeers greeted him at MGM Grand Garden Arena.
It was as if the 12,606 in attendance had accepted that Evans would be champion for a long time. Machida, however, wasn't convinced, and neither were oddsmakers.
They listed Machida as the favorite at minus-200; Evans was plus-170. It did not take Machida long to prove the oddsmakers correct; he knocked Evans out at 3 minutes, 57 seconds of the second round.
Evans had 19 professional fights under his belt before taking on Machida and had never lost. A large part of his success in the Octagon was predicated on being fully prepared. Heading into this fight, Evans was prepared mentally and physically. There wasn't the slightest doubt in his mind that he would retain his crown.
But Machida has a unique style of fighting, and there is no way any mixed martial artist can accurately prepare for it. Besides, no matter how well a fighter executes his game plan, there comes a point when he is vulnerable.
It usually occurs when a fighter goes on the attack. At that moment, Machida unleashes his offensive assault.
When Evans began to open up on offense in the second round, he became vulnerable on defense. That's when Machida struck and sealed Evans' fate.
"In my karate, there is a time which is called the Kyo, which means the fighter has no defense," said Machida, 30, who improved to 15-0-0 and still hasn't lost a round in UFC competition. "I study to make sure I attack right at the correct Kyo, and that's what I did."
It's this aspect of Machida's game that makes him virtually unbeatable. He knows exactly when to attack a defenseless fighter, especially aggressive ones.
At some point, opponents are likely to find holes in Machida's style. Until then, no 205-pound contender is capable of dethroning him. He is a totally different type of mixed martial artist whose fighting style remains alien to MMA strategists.
"I wanted to make him strike first, but he has excellent timing," Evans said.
Machida's base discipline is Shotokan karate, and no one has come close to figuring out a way to neutralize it. Add to this fighting style Machida's quick hands, hard punches, elusive defense and accurate strikes, and it is hard to envision any of today's top light heavyweights defeating him.
Jackson will get the first shot at trying to topple Machida. Good luck. No date has been set for the fight, but it doesn't matter.
Regardless of how much time Jackson is given to prepare, he will be a huge underdog against Machida. A new era has begun in the UFC's light heavyweight division, and it is expected to last a very long time.
"Obviously, the way he beat Rashad Evans tonight was very impressive," UFC president Dana White said. "He gets better every time he fights. It might be the Machida era right now."
Machida put on a memorable performance, but his best has yet to come. The new champion plans to continue improving his game.
"Now that I have become a champion, the real work begins," Machida said. "My goal is to go out there and become a better fighter every time I step into the Octagon.
"When I go back home, my father will analyze the tapes with my brothers and see what mistakes I made and try to improve."
Franklin McNeil covers boxing and mixed martial arts for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. and appears weekly on "MMA Live."