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MONTREAL – Less than a year ago, Lyoto Machida looked virtually unbeatable and appeared to be on the start of a long and dominant reign as the Ultimate Fighting Championship's light heavyweight champion.
He had a seemingly impregnable defense and was adding powerful striking and a varied offense to it with each passing day.
At the same time, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua was still a man with a lot to prove. He was coming off a devastating first-round knockout of Chuck Liddell at UFC 97, but he didn't receive a lot of credit for it because most assumed that the then-39-year-old Liddell had reached the end of the line.
Rua even had to take criticism for his win before that, a Fight of the Night victory over Mark Coleman at UFC 93 when he lost his conditioning in the final round.
But now, it is Machida searching for answers and Rua who sits atop the UFC's most talented division.
Rua knocked out Machida to win light heavyweight title in their heavily hyped rematch Saturday in front of 17,647 boisterous fans at the Bell Centre, ending the controversy that began after their first fight in October.
The challenger hit Machida with an overhand right to start the finishing sequence, but the telling blow was a hammering right from the top position on a prone Machida that immediately closed Machida's eye and ended his title reign.
Rua knew Machida had had enough and quit punching seconds before referee Yves Lavigne jumped in to stop the fight at 3:35 of the first round.
"He made my job a lot easier," Lavigne said.
The win came on the heels of a highly controversial loss to Machida at UFC 104 in October, a bout in which UFC president Dana White, most of the media and a large percentage of the sport's fans felt Rua had won. The three judges, though, gave the decision to Machida.
But Rua made an adjustment after watching tape of the first fight, noticing that Machida would drop his hands while being kicked.
"In my first fight against Machida, I tried to exploit the kicks a lot," Rua said. "I noticed that every time he would try to attack by timing my kicks, he was attacking but without his guard in the proper place. He attacked with his face exposed.
"This time, I worked a lot not only on the kicks, but also on a high overhand right punch to surprise him as he was trying to move in from my kicks."
Rua had every reason to gloat after the win, but he was humble and classy. He was heavily criticized since entering the UFC for not living up to the high expectations that had been placed upon him.
He had earned a reputation in the PRIDE Fighting Championship, where he had beaten the likes of Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Alistair Overeem, as one of the elite 205-pounders in the world.
But he gassed in a match against Forrest Griffin at UFC 76 in 2007 and was submitted, then he stumbled around the ring against the veteran Coleman at UFC 93. He still won against Coleman, but that was hardly a stirring performance.
Rua, though, had a legitimate excuse. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left leg during his training camp with Griffin but went through with the fight anyway. He then tore the same ligament again in 2008 while training for a fight in London against Liddell.
He underwent a second surgery and had a cadaver's ligament inserted in his knee. Rua took a beating in the media, but was classy and never lashed out.
"The toughest times that a fighter can face are the injury times," Rua said. "Injuries are the worst thing that can happen to a fighter's career, so the worst times of my life were after those knee surgeries … because it was very tough and people were criticizing me a lot.
"I work so hard, and when I was going through that criticism, I tried to think that someone had to pay the bill. Someone had to pay for what I was going through and I tried to do that in my fights and pay it back when I'm fighting."
His win opened a whole series of delicious possibilities, though White was not of a mind to discuss them Saturday.
White ruled out a title fight, at least immediately, against middleweight champion Anderson Silva. He said Silva has to face Chael Sonnen next and, if he wins, Vitor Belfort. At that point, White said, he'd consider allowing Silva to move to light heavyweight.
"I'm still unhappy with Anderson" for his strange performance at UFC 112, White said. "The way that Shogun performed, that's what people are paying for. If you bought a ticket or you bought the pay-per-view, that's what people are paying to see."
Two former light heavyweight champions, Jackson and Rashad Evans, meet later in the month at UFC 114, but White wouldn't concede that either of them would get the next shot. And there's always the prospect of a rubber match with Machida, who suffered his first defeat after 16 wins on Saturday.
Rua, who debunked an ESPN report that was broadcast prior to the fight that he had injured his left knee again as "completely not true," said he never gave up on achieving his dream despite the hard time.
"Shogun" said he turned the corner when he bought an octagon for his gym in Brazil. The punching angles change from a ring, which was used in PRIDE, to a cage, which is used in the UFC.
Healthy and trained properly, a calm and motivated Rua was magnificent. But he didn't feel pressure to perform as if the bout was a last-chance opportunity.
"Every time I am about to fight, people say to me, 'How come you are so relaxed? It seems like you are going to a chess match instead of a fight,' " Rua said. "But I never put pressure on myself to win. I put pressure on myself only to do my best. This is my obligation."
It was an obligation he handled well. His best was plenty good and left a guy who was almost never hit by anyone else battered, swollen and decisively beaten.
"Shogun proved that the first time maybe everybody was right with the scoring," White said. "To go out and KO Lyoto Machida in the first round the way he did, to call that impressive is stupid. It was incredible, unbelievable."
It was incredible, unbelievable and impressive.
And you know what else?
It was well-deserved.
- Lyoto Machida