Toronto, Ontario, Canada gets its first taste of UFC action when the Rogers Centre hosts UFC 129: St. Pierre vs. Shields this Saturday. In the main event, title challenger Jake Shields (26-4-1) hopes to keep his six-year winning streak going when he faces current 170lbs. king “Rush” Georges St. Pierre (21-2) for the coveted welterweight title. The headlining superfight is directly supported by “Junior” José Aldo (17-1) returning from the injured list to face “The Machine” Mark Hominick (19-7) with his featherweight title up for grabs. Nebraska’s favorite fighter “The Hitman” Jason Brilz (18-3-1) enters the cage opposite International Fight League (IFL) veteran “The Janitor” Vladimir Matyushenko (25-5) and Toronto’s native son Mark Bocek (9-3) plans to give former WEC champ “Smooth” Ben Henderson (11-2) a rude welcoming in his UFC debut. In the midst of the action, history will be made as “The Natural” Randy Couture (19-11) enters the Octagon, allegedly for the last time, against the always calm but equally dangerous “The Dragon” Lyoto Machida (16-2). While the UFC Hall of Famer Couture will always be loved and admired for his accomplishments both in and outside the sport, ending his career on the highest possible note with a victory may prove difficult against Machida, who himself looks to get back on the road towards title contention.
At First Glance: With UFC 129 rolling in, this match between a potential UFC Hall of Famer in Machida against the legend in Couture was destined to take place. For Lyoto Machida, who is currently on a two-fight losing skid, he has to hold his own and defeat one of the sport’s most respected fighters in order to be back on the pursuit for his division’s title. A practitioner of his namesake Karate style, Machida’s unorthodox approach of fighting focuses on his ability to remain elusive and capitalize on the mistakes the opposition grants him due to their mistiming or frustration. “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” Tito Ortiz (15-8-1) expressed his distress throughout his trial with Machida whenever he was unable to cease Machida’s movement and striking for all three rounds in his Unanimous Decision loss. Thiago Silva’s (16-2) attempts at closing the distance against Machida proved unsuccessful when he was tripped over and knocked down repeatedly. After two losses, a win over Couture might be all it takes to become another serious player in the 205lbs. division. Once thought to make his exit in the sport in 2009 the three-fight win streak since UFC 105 Randy Couture has amassed proves that there is still plenty of fight in his tank even at age 47. Now in 2011, “The Natural” seems content on hanging up the gloves for good after this match. Couture’s bread and butter is to use his wrestling to press his opponent to the cage and dirty box his way to victory, though his improving Jiu-Jitsu and ability to strategize solid game plans also have made him a difficult opponent to overcome. With wins over fellow veteran “The Hammer” Mark Coleman (16-10) and boxing legend “Lights Out” James Toney (0-1 MMA, 73-6-3 Boxing) both by submission, a win over Machida would be a pleasing way to cap off his career.
In Depth: Although both men appear evenly matched, the pressure of the fight definitely is placed on the shoulders of Lyoto Machida. This enigmatic figure who was once viewed as untouchable has slowly been unraveled and become easier to figure out, and with a decision loss and knockout comprising his concurrent losses, Machida is now charged with the daunting task of defeating a former heavyweight and light heavyweight champion if he wishes to stay relevant in the 205lbs. title picture. What Machida will have against “The Natural” lies primarily in his patience and superior defense capabilities. His training in Sumo and Jiu-Jitsu will assist him in preventing a majority of takedowns Couture might attempt and even make him weary should one takedown attempt prove successful. Plus with the background in tournament point-sparring, Machida understands that waiting for the right moment to strike and evade will make all the difference between winning or losing. Tito Ortiz’s experience against “The Dragon” proved troublesome when he failed to grab a hold of the native Brazilian and instead found himself on the receiving end of malicious strikes. At UFC 98, Machida’s conservative fighting led him to win the UFC light heavyweight title when he was able to overwhelm “Sugar” Rashad Evans (15-1-1) on multiple occasions with a final flurry knocking him out in the second round.
When Couture steps into the Octagon he will have the comfort of knowing that his gameplan just might be fool proof enough to break the diligence of Machida. A master strategist himself, “The Natural” is known for avidly altering his training in order to fully maximize his strengths. Case in point: when pitted against Mark Coleman, Couture shifted his specialty of Greco-Roman wrestling, where holds below the waist are forbidden, to catch-wrestling to emphasize better chances of submission usage. Ultimately, Couture’s change in style served him well when he was able to submit Coleman in the second round with a Rear Naked Choke. Strategy aside Couture’s foundation in wrestling also caters more to his trademark gameplan: smother opponents then dirty box from inside the pocket or against the cage. Despite fighting at his natural 205lbs. class, much larger heavyweights compared such as “The Maine-iac” Tim Sylvia (28-7) and “Napao” Gabriel Gonzaga (11-6) have fallen to this tactic when done by “The Natural”. With one man who is willing to wait before landing that “one” shot against another who can approach a fight with a chess player’s point of view, neither Couture nor Machida can afford to make a mistake.
Wild Card: Scoring in the Octagon revolves around four criteria: effective striking, effective grappling, Octagon control, and what has been a key factor towards Machida’s career as of late, aggression. His conservative style does not hand him early favoritism in the Octagon control component, as it is not until he counters effectively that Machida could regain the points in aggression. It might not be the most thrilling manner for the casual observer to enjoy but this method Machida has utilized time and time again has been found extremely successful as his once 16-fight win streak would support. On the other hand, it is this elusiveness that nearly cost Machida the light heavyweight championship in 2009 when he fought a predatory “Shogun” Mauricio Rua (19-5) to a Split Decision victory in his first title defense. Their 2010 rematch saw Machida break his routine by becoming the aggressor – this proved costly as Rua was able to land a counter-right hand upon Lyoto, knocking him out shortly after the halfway point of the first round. Six months after losing his title Machida went back to his usual defensive style against “Rampage” Quinton Jackson (29-8). While Machida clearly won the third round, Jackson’s insistence to press forward and strike coupled with the better grappling in the first two rounds would be pivotal in Jackson’s Split Decision victory. With Randy Couture’s aforementioned gameplan of pressing the cage with dirty boxing, Machida can either fight defensively and wait to effectively counter while initially sacrificing early judges’ nods to Couture, or he could choose to launch the offensive primarily while putting himself at risk for a counter-strike or takedown. Lyoto Machida now finds himself in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation and has to tread carefully when choosing a way to approximate the fight.
The Verdict: Both men have a lot riding on this fight. No fighter wishes to lose three bouts in a row or sent back to the end of the line – perhaps even out of the UFC – and all fighters want to end their career with a validating win. When all things are considered, though he might be in phenomenal shape with a fit mind, Couture plays well into Machida’s strengths. If he goes for a takedown, Machida stuffs it. If Couture throws a punch, Machida will move and return two strikes back for his effort. If Couture grabs a hold of him, Machida will slip out or get the takedown instead. Couture will always be one of the greatest fighters the sport has seen, but with a fighter waiting to explode at the right moment Machida will ruin the storybook ending that is “The Natural’s” career when that opportunity arises. Machida via TKO (Strikes), Round 3.