UFC Sao Paulo: The Dragon Returns to a New World

UFC Sao Paulo Lyoto Machida
Credit: Jesse Denis/Sherdog.com

UFC Sao Paulo marks the return of Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida, but Derek Brunson is no stranger to facing the best in the world.

One of the more peculiar suspensions in MMA is over on Saturday at UFC Sao Paulo as Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida returns after more than a year absence to face fellow middleweight contender Derek Brunson. While he gets the perfect stage to compete in his home country, the fight is a critical one for the future of both men and carries more implications than just another top ten fight in the division.

In April of 2015, Machida was continuing his journey back to title contention. The year prior he had lost a five-round effort for the belt against Chris Weidman and had bounced back with a win over journeyman CB Dolloway. His road came to a halt in stunning fashion when he met Luke Rockhold, getting dominated from the opening bell as the American was putting together his own title run.

The loss was arguably the worst of Machida’s career and “The Dragon” made the decision to double-down to keep himself close to title contention when he faced Yoel Romero two months later. After two slow-paced and closely contested rounds, Romero found his mark and stopped the former champion with a stunning knockout.

While the skid was unfortunate, the worst period was yet to come as he was given an 18-month suspension after testing positive for 7-keto-DHEA. Following the positive test, Machida admitted that the substance was bought over the counter in another supplement that he took for stress relief. The suspension has been the subject of much controversy as Machida’s openness about the matter and seeming contradiction on behalf of USADA had many scratching their heads at the severity of his punishment.

In his absence, the game of mixed martial arts has become vastly different. At the time of his fight with Romero, Ronda Rousey was still the undefeated queen of the UFC and Conor McGregor had yet to headline his first pay-per-view event. Even in the middleweight division, the belt has changed hands twice in Machida’s absence. Once a heavily lauded former light-heavyweight champion, “The Dragon” had now been thoroughly removed from the upper-echelon of the 185 division.

Machida spoke with ESPN saying that were it not for the suspension, he would probably be retired with all of the issues he had going in-and-out of the cage. Now 39 years old, it has become a more serious question.  At the time he won the title, he was clearly in his athletic prime and undisputedly one of the most skilled tacticians the sport had ever seen. Today, the level of the competition has increased ten-fold and there is a new generation of young up-and-comers hungry to break through the ranks.

If a title run is Machida’s goal, he has a daunting path ahead of him. Fighters like Michael Bisping, Robert Whittaker, Jacare Souza, Rockhold, and Romero stand between him and the belt. It’s a tall order for any fighter, but even more so for an athlete on the cusp of 40 who hasn’t fought in two years. Saturday’s bout will be a vital gauge for how much fight the former champion still has left in him.

That brings us to Derek Brunson. The middleweight stand-out has made his mark in the UFC in the span Machida has been away and been in several notable fights. In the last year alone, he fought both current interim champion Robert Whittaker and MMA legend Anderson Silva. While he came up short in both of those bouts, he most recently rebounded with a knockout over Dan Kelly.

Brunson put together an impressive five-fight win-streak from 2014 to 2016 and remains a formidable threat in the top ten at 185. A victory over Machida would be the biggest of his career and dispatching the former champion would set him up for fights against the likes of Chris Weidman and the rest of the top-five in the coming months.

Stylistically, the x-factor of Machida looms heavily over the fight. His speed and timing have always been a crucial element to his game but there’s no telling of what level those will be after his long layoff. Defensively, he has excellent takedown defense and is a competent grappler if Brunson tries to go to the ground.

For Brunson, the key is to push forward and not allow Machida the space he needs to set up strikes from the outside. “The Dragon” has always had his best success when he’s able to pick apart opponents with precision in the center of the Octagon. Brunson should look to initiate a brawl and get in the face of the former champion. Most importantly: he needs to cut off the cage. Machida has mastered being able to escape out the side-door when backed against the fence and countering opponents as they follow him. A victory for Brunson will come if he cuts off Machida, not follow him. From there, he can close the distance with his heavy punches, go for a takedown or initiate the clinch where he does the most damage.

It was the hallmark of The Dragon’s career in 2009, when he won the title and Joe Rogan proclaimed it the beginning of the “Machida Era.” Instead, mixed martial arts evolved much faster than anyone could have known that day years ago. Brunson knows this, having faced arguably the best middleweight in the world in Robert Whittaker while Machida was away. That said, Machida remains one of the most unique fighters of all time and Brunson will have to solve the puzzle in enemy territory on Saturday night.