Will Machida ride unusual style to a title?

LAS VEGAS – There are those who want to dub Lyoto Machida, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s unbeaten light heavyweight contender, as “The Karate Kid,” as a sort of homage to his background as a black belt in Shotokan karate.

To all but the most dedicated mixed martial arts fans, though, he’s more like Austin Powers.

You know, the “International Man of Mystery.”

Despite a perfect record, despite not having lost so much as a round in seven UFC fights, despite victories over former UFC champions Tito Ortiz, Rich Franklin and B.J. Penn, perhaps only the Minnesota Twins’ bat boy has a lower profile than Machida.

He’ll fight Rashad Evans on Saturday for the UFC’s light heavyweight title in a bout that would be attracting gobs more attention were it, as was originally planned, former champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson who was standing across the cage from Evans rather than Machida.

Neither Evans nor Machida has lost and only a controversial draw against Ortiz at UFC 73 blots Evans’ record and prevents this from being a match of two fighters with perfect marks.

Machida’s style is confounding not only to those who have to fight him, but even more so to those who watch him.

It’s usually not hard to understand what happened when you see Evans land an overhand right or Jackson drive a guy into the mat so hard that it would make Dick Butkus stand and applaud.

Machida, though, wins fights in an almost surgical manner. He fights with almost no expression, similar to former PRIDE heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko.

He’s elusive and defensive and, well, different. Evans, the man who needs to figure it out, and fast, says simply that Machida’s style is “interesting” and “pretty tricky.”

If Jackson is to MMA what Nolan Ryan was to pitching, then Machida is Greg Maddux.

Maddux’ fastball might have been, oh, 15 or 20 miles per hour slower than Ryan’s. Ryan get batters out by letting them know what was coming and then throwing the ball so hard they simply couldn’t get around quickly enough to hit it.

Maddux was slyer. Look outside and he came in. Expect something hard and get something offspeed. It was almost impossible to hit the middle of the ball with the barrel of the bat when Maddux was in his prime. Guys would sit in the on deck circle and salivate at the thought of hitting against him, but then would drag their bats back to the dugout wondering what had happened.

And that’s how Machida’s career has gone. Machida probably strikes fear in no one. He doesn’t have a devastating move he’s renowned for pulling off. But he wins by playing chess as everyone else is playing checkers.

Dana White, the UFC’s colorful president, has become rich and famous beyond measure because of his ability to express himself. Words roll off his tongue as quickly as the fastball exploded out of Ryan’s hand.

Ask him what makes Machida so intriguing, though, and White takes a deep breath and pauses before going on.

“He wins,” White said. “The guy is (14-0) and look at who he’s beating. He’s fighting everyone. People can relate to a guy like that. He looks like anybody else, but he goes out there and he just beats whoever he fights.”

Some may call his style boring, because he’s not likely to wind up with any highlight reel knockouts or jaw-dropping moves. The half-Brazilian, half-Japanese Machida incorporates sumo training into his game, which shows with a superb sense of balance. His defense is so tight, he’s rarely hit. In the fight game, many see that as a negative, but Pernell Whitaker and Willie Pep landed in the International Boxing Hall of Fame because of their defense.

He’s a methodical, purposeful fighter, though he’s clearly heard the criticism. He wants to be entertaining, but clearly not at the expense of victory.

“It’s part of my job to entertain the fans,” Machida said. “In the end, it’s a sport, but it’s also entertainment. I’m being paid to entertain the fans. I believe that all of the criticism goes on to a good side of my training, because I can hear what the people are saying and kind of adapt my training, and kind of get better in whatever way I can.”

Machida’s biggest victory is probably his win over Ortiz at UFC 84, when he survived a triangle choke and an arm bar in the final minute to pull out a unanimous decision victory.

White, though, prefers to point toward Machida’s most recent outing, when he was explosive and powerful and dominating in finishing previously unbeaten Thiago Silva in the first round. Silva was an aggressive bully, the kind of fighter fans tend to love, but Machida turned the tables on him and pounded him out.

Ever the promoter, White expects that version of Machida to gradually appear more and more often.

“I’ve been around this sport for a while now, and the one thing I’ve noticed is that as guys get comfortable being here (in the UFC) and dealing with all the pressure of fighting here, that they relax and open up more,” White said. “Machida feels he belongs now and you saw that (against Silva). It’s not like he doesn’t have the ability to do that.”

If Machida wins, he’ll bound upward in the pound-for-pound rankings and would have a strong claim himself to being the best fighter in the world. After all, who else is unbeaten and would have names like Franklin, Penn, Ortiz, Silva, Stephan Bonnar and Evans on his resume?

He’s seventh in the Yahoo! Sports poll now, two spots behind Evans, and will at least move into the top five with a win.

He’ll never be the charismatic champion that guys like Jackson, Chuck Liddell, Ortiz and Randy Couture were, but if wins and he keeps the belt for any length of time, he may become as big as any of them.

Fans love a winner and right now, there is no more consistent winner in MMA than Lyoto Machida.

Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, May 20, 2009