So, I’ve been doing this “Who Takes It?” series, where I offer a little analysis and pick a winner for the weekend’s most intriguing fight, for a few months now.
Sometimes, I’ve been 100% right in my predictions, like the time I picked Miesha Tate to eke out a close decision win over Sara McMann a few weeks ago.
I’ve been wrong others — like, well, last week.
Still, I couldn’t have been more happy to be wrong. Mirko Cro Cop made me feel eight years younger last Saturday, coming back from a few tough rounds to earn a TKO victory over Gabriel Gonzaga.
I thought Cro Cop’s advancing age would give out before Gonzaga’s gas tank. That or I’m turning 40 soon and getting cranky about it. Anyway, thank you sir!
But, that’s history — ancient history — now.
Tonight, UFC on FOX features a spectacular fight in Lyoto Machida vs. Luke Rockhold: two of the top five middleweights in the world going at it in one of the first must-see MMA bouts of 2015, and I can’t honestly remember a fight more difficult to call.
I love both these guys. As our own Ingo Weigold described in last week’s MMA Nuts show, MMA’s great karate exponent Machida is that consummate lifelong, martial artist that’s just impossible to dislike.
It’s a hard thing to define, that quality. I tried to in a column for MMAFrenzy two years ago. It’s something about the respect for opponent. It’s something in the calm intensity.
It’s what Masutatsu Oyama, the father of the Kyokushin style of karate, described as feeling impelled “to unify his body and spirit” through his fighting, even if it meant fighting a bull.
(And, they say he did. In his book “Mastering Karate” Oyama wrote that he was going to fight a bear as well, but “financial conditions deprived me of the chance.”)
That’s Machida — even in defeat. Watch him move in and out, landing hard straight lefts and his arsenal of kicks, even after a three round beating from Chris Weidman — you see it.
You can see it in Luke Rockhold too, though. Sure, maybe it’s not movie-ready like Machida’s family background: the familiar clips of Yoshizo, Machida’s samurai patriarch of a father, leading Lyoto and brother Chinzo (now signed to Bellator) in outdoor karate practice in the morning at their home in Belem, Brazil.
But Machida’s fellow southpaw Rockhold, in fact, is also from a family of athletes. His father was a professional basketball player, and his older brother Matt still surfs professionally in their native Santa Cruz, California.
Rockhold is athletic, big for the division, enjoys a diverse striking attack and a dynamic submission game. Unlike Machida, he is a decorated Brazilian jiu-jitsu competitor, with and without the gi. He even turned up at the 2013 BJJ Worlds, to regain focus after an MMA loss.
His journey has been something to behold, as well. When Rockhold won the Strikeforce title against Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza back in 2011, he was strangely untested: Rockhold hadn’t fought outside of his native California and hadn’t been out of the first round.
It was a little rough early on. Rockhold got cracked by Souza’s right hand a few times in the first two rounds, and despite finding some success with a diverse, stance-switching attack, he likely gave up both stanzas.
But he came back. In later rounds, Jacare slowed, and Rockhold became more aggressive. Jacare’s grappling was nullified, and more Rockhold’s fluid combinations carried the day — earning him the Strikeforce title.
He has continued to adapt since then, fighting just as well moving back as he does moving forwards. Other than that one knockout loss to “TRT era” Vitor Belfort, who fought with the assistance of synthetic testosterone, his record remains unblemished.
In recent fights, Rockhold’s dynamic submission game has been on display: rolling over Tim Boetch with the submission of the year 2014, and later scoring a beautiful guillotine submission over Michael Bisping.
He just keeps getting better, which is what being a martial artist is all about.
At this point, I think Rockhold has the edge over any middleweight not on synthetic testosterone, with the possible exception of Chris Weidman. And yes, that includes Lyoto Machida. I see him adapting to losing a southpaw advantage better (by virtue of having the more diverse striking arsenal), having the better ground game, and being a better overall athlete. Not by much, perhaps in any of those cases — but enough here.
Asked to pick a winner, Ben Askren called it for Rockhold by submission.
I like that pick but I think Machida has just enough savvy to avoid that fate, and gets narrowly out-struck in a decision loss.
As always, enjoy the fights.