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MMA fighter Lyoto Machida hoping drop in weight class rejuvenates career

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

When Lyoto Machida knocked out Rashad Evans to win the light heavyweight title at UFC 98 on May 23, 2009, greatness was expected.

Instead, mostly "goodness" followed. The dawn of the Machida Era was quickly followed by its dusk. Since winning the belt, he's gone just 4-4 and has not developed the way it seemed he would.

He's coming off a loss and is 35 now, an age when many athletes begin the inevitable slide toward retirement.

Machida switched weight classes after his loss in August to Phil Davis, dropping from light heavyweight to middleweight and, in the process, making the move so many desperate fighters make when they reach a career crossroads.

But Machida's move down may prove to be his career salvation. He'll fight his friend and onetime training partner, Mark Munoz, on Saturday in the main event of a UFC card in Manchester, England, in a bout that will say much about the remainder of his career.

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Lyoto Machida (blue shorts) falls to Phil Davis in UFC 163. (USA TODAY Sports)

The drop to middleweight, with a 185-pound limit, is one that Machida has long contemplated. He was small by light heavyweight standards, usually walking around at 210 pounds. It was easy for him to cut to the light heavyweight limit of 205 pounds. By way of comparison, Chael Sonnen often weighed in the 220s and even 230s when he was fighting at middleweight.

This is a case where Machida's strengths – his quickness, punching accuracy and elusiveness – should be buoyed by the drop in weight, while his weaknesses should be diminished a bit.

"I think Lyoto is just as good as he was when he was the champion, but he's opening some new horizons for himself by going to middleweight," Munoz said.

Machida split two fights in 2013, winning a lackluster decision over Dan Henderson at UFC 157 in February before dropping a controversial verdict to Davis at UFC 163 in August.

He's been so average that he's beginning to lose the support he had from UFC president Dana White. When Machida first joined the UFC, White vigorously defended him against charges he was boring, pointing out he was a young fighter finding his way at the highest level.

White's faith seemed justified after he routed Evans, but the pendulum seems to have swung back the other direction. Machida disputes his losses to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Davis, but even if he got those calls, it's not like he was exceptionally impressive.

White has noticed and isn't thrilled with how he's fought. Clearly, the pressure is on him to perform now that he's in what appears to be his best class.

"This is a big fight for Machida," White said. "He's going in at [185 pounds] for the first time, against Munoz, who is ranked in the top five. A win here puts him in a real good position. He was starting to get in no man's land at 205."

White believes Machida has not fought as aggressively as he should. He has exceptionally fast hands but often doesn't seem to take risks, letting them go only rarely. He plays defense first, then worries about offense.

That's good for career longevity, but in the UFC, where the fighters are encouraged to mix it up and are awarded bonuses when they do, it's not the way to impress.

"He's too conservative," White said. "You go out against guys with that elusive, runaway style and it's never going to win you fights or fans. I would say that's more the reason."

Machida has heard the criticism and he's not running away from it. He's fought a series of wrestlers, perhaps the one style that best negates his. Munoz is the seventh consecutive opponent Machida has faced with a wrestling background.

But to be a champion, one has to beat whoever is there. And in the UFC, wrestlers are clearly dominant. Of the nine classes (eight men's and one women's) in the UFC, six of the champions are wrestlers.

Machida gets it and is making no excuses. He knows the onus is on him to perform.

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Lyoto Machida celebrates his victory over Dan Henderson in February. (USA TODAY Sports)

"I'm 35 years old now and I have more than 20 fights in my career and when I was young, I was desperate not to lose," he said. "Before I got the title, that was the one thing I was so worried about: Don't lose. I don't want a loss now, but it's different. Since I won the belt, I lost by submission, by knockout, decision, every part of the game.

"I've been around and I understand the business. At my age now, there is less pressure. There is always pressure to perform, but I don't worry about losing so much now. I just want to go out there and perform the best way that I can."

He's no longer on the top of many must-see lists given his recent performances, but he doesn't appear to have lost much from all his battles over the years.

He appears in magnificent condition and he's remarkably preserved despite 23 fights. He remains quick and agile and could yet be a title challenger again.

"Of course, everyone thinks about the title, but I prefer right now not to even talk about it," Machida said. "It makes no sense, because I'm just arriving at 185 pounds. I need to fight the best in the world and get some wins before I do any of that talk."

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