ANAHEIM, Calif. – Lyoto Machida is one win away from fighting again for the UFC light heavyweight title.
He'll face veteran slugger Dan Henderson on Saturday in the non-women's main event of UFC 157 at the Honda Center, with a spot at stake against the winner of the April 27 title fight between champion Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen.
Machida enters the Henderson fight at a strange spot in his career though, suddenly more vulnerable than ever and unable to put together any kind of streak. The seemingly untouchable fighter of the early part of his career has vanished, replaced by an easier-to-hit, aging version of himself.
After his first seven UFC fights, when he was 7-0 and held the 205-pound belt, Machida was the UFC's most difficult fighter to hit. According to Fight Metric, he only took 0.75 strikes per minute, far better than the UFC average of 2.61.
His striking defense, which measures the percentage of strikes avoided, was similarly strong. His rate of 73.6 percent far exceeded the UFC average of 58 percent.
Those same statistics over his last six fights, though, have changed dramatically and are probably the reason why he's just 3-3 in those matches.
Since winning the title, he's split a pair of fights with Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and beaten Randy Couture and Ryan Bader. He was also beaten by Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.
In those six fights, Machida has absorbed 2.27 strikes per minute, which is right around the average. And his striking defense has dropped to 55 percent, slightly below average.
The Machida Mystique is clearly gone. Machida himself admitted that Thursday at a news conference at the Honda Center.
"The more you fight, the more predictable you become and people study you more," he said. "People learn what you're going to do and you're more prone to get hit."
That's true, but those aren't the words one expects to hear from a guy on the verge of a title shot. It's also strange to hear him repeatedly talk about dropping to middleweight. If he has a chance to win the light heavyweight title, it would seem prudent to focus on that division and not to contemplate dropping to a class in which one of his good friends holds the belt.
The most troubling aspect of all of this is that in Henderson, Machida will face a guy who hits as hard as anyone he's faced. Henderson has one of the best fight hands in the sport and has a slew of knockouts on his record that proves it.
For Machida to win, he's got to find a way to bring back the elusive guy who was hit less often than any fighter in UFC history. He was brilliant with his counter punching, as he was able to avoid shots and then land counters his opponents didn't see coming.
[Related: Title window closing on UFC's Dan Henderson]
Machida was 28 when he met Sam Hoger in 2007 in his UFC debut. He fought with his hands at his side, but had a sort of radar for incoming punches that made up for his lack of a classic defensive position.
Now, though, he's 34 and has a lot of miles on him. An argument could be made that all the wars he's been in recently have dulled his reflexes to the point where he's not able to get away with fighting with his hands at his side against top competition. He's taken significant punishment from the likes of Jones and Rua, in particular.
He's at a crossroad, like a strikeout pitcher who has lost five miles per hour off the fastball. All of a sudden, Machida has to come up with a different way to achieve the same goal: to not be hit.
He needs to adjust, and he needs to do so soon.
"I'm always trying to improve and this time, I've brought a bunch of different [sparring] partners in to simulate Dan Henderson's style," Machida said.
No one expected him to spill the game plan publicly with Henderson sitting a few feet away from him, but what he's been doing recently doesn't figure to be good enough to beat Henderson.
One of Machida's primary sparring partners was Melvin Manhoef, a powerful kicker and striker. That didn't escape Henderson's notice.
"Melvin is a good fighter, but he and I don't have the same style," Henderson said.
The pressure on Machida is mounting. He hasn't won two in a row since 2009, when he knocked out Rashad Evans to win the title and then retained it via a highly controversial decision over Rua at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
He's unlikely to be cut with a loss, though UFC president Dana White said Thursday that even after cutting 16 fighters on Monday, as many as 100 more need to be trimmed from the roster.
Among those 16 the UFC cut was Jon Fitch, who was ranked No. 9 at the time among welterweights.
White cited Fitch's salary – "He's super [expletive] expensive," White said several times – and the fact that he was "trending downward" as reasons for the move.
If Machida loses to Henderson, he'll be 3-4 in his last seven fights and clearly trending downward. And, like Fitch, he's "super expensive."
The business is clearly cutthroat these days and up-and-down fighters have to be concerned about their futures.
It's an odd position for a guy to be in: Win, and Machida will be fighting for the title. Lose, and he's possibly only one loss away from being released.
Machida needs to find that defensive magic again, and soon.
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