LOS ANGELES – Lyoto Machida, the Ultimate Fighting Championship's unbeaten light heavyweight champion, had the look of a loser in the waning moments of Saturday.
His lip was split, bruises dotted his face and he walked very gingerly on his right leg. More telling, a frown creased his face throughout the entire postfight news conference, 45 minutes after his bout with Mauricio "Shogun" Rua had ended at the Staples Center.
UFC president Dana White, who promised a rematch as soon as he could make it, felt Rua had won. Undercard fighters Joe Stevenson and Anthony Johnson agreed. The majority of the media scored it for Rua.
And though Machida's body language said he felt the same way, the three men who were paid to render the decision disagreed.
Judges Nelson "Doc" Hamilton, Cecil Peoples and Marcos Rosales each scored the fight 48-47 for Machida, who improved to 16-0 in the most difficult bout of his career. Hamilton gave Machida Rounds 2, 3 and 4. Peoples and Rosales each gave Machida the first three rounds.
That was all he needed to become the first man since Quinton "Rampage" Jackson in 2007 to successfully defend the UFC's light heavyweight belt.
"I would have liked to have performed better," Machida said glumly, "but it's not always possible."
But while the majority opinion seemed to be that Rua deserved to win the title – Yahoo! Sports also had it 48-47 for Rua, giving him Rounds 1, 4 and 5 – this verdict was hardly an outrage.
Many in the crowd of around 16,000 let Hamilton, Rosales and Peoples know how they felt. Internet message boards lit up immediately with howls of protests.
The men who should be facing the wrath of those who felt Rua had won should not be Hamilton, Peoples and Rosales, who rendered their opinions in a very technical, taut affair. Rather, Rua supporters should be angry at his corner men, who continually told him he was well ahead.
Rua said he didn't press the action in the final two rounds because his corner had told him he was in control. If that's true, it's that advice that cost him the fight. And it's always the worst kind of advice to give a fighter in any match, but particularly a technical fight like Machida-Rua.
And while many disagree with the judges, their decision is at least defensible. White blasted them for their scoring, but he and many of the angry fans didn't take time to consider that the judges weren't drinking beer and eating popcorn and slapping five with their friends or doing any of the things that fans do as they watch a bout. Their concentration was on the cage and the action inside it for all five minutes of every round.
Fans, who are distracted by other things, tend to look away from the action for a split second or two several times in a fight, whether it be to talk to a friend, grab a snack or gesticulate after a big blow. When a bout is as close as Machida-Rua was, that's often the difference between scoring the round correctly and getting it wrong.
"It was a matter of each round being won on maybe one or two little things," Hamilton said following the fight. "There was no sustained action by anybody in that fight. There were no combinations thrown. It was always one punch, one kick. So you look at it and say, 'What was effective in that fight? What was effective in that round?' Based on that, somebody wins the round."
Those advocating a Rua victory point to the fact that Machida appeared to take far more damage in the bout. Rua's kicks were tenderizing Machida's leg and the welts on his face gave away, perhaps for the first time, what he does for a living.
Hamilton, though, said it's hard to judge a fight on damage sustained in a bout like Machida-Rua.
"They're assuming he's hurt," Hamilton said. "You don't really know, though, do you?"
This was a fight that was there for Rua to win and he simply didn't win it. Had the decision gone Rua's way, Machida couldn't have complained, because there was little to choose from in many of the rounds. It was a very close fight and a case could be made for either man in most of the rounds.
Rua (18-4) was hurting Machida with kicks – Machida said the large welt on the left side of his midsection wasn't causing him pain, but he conceded at the postfight news conference his right leg was giving him problems – and he seemed to control the tempo.
Machida said after the bout he hadn't been busted up as badly since his sixth professional mixed martial arts bout. But Rua, who was trailing on all three scorecards after three rounds, didn't pick up the pace because he was told he was in command of the bout.
"I feel I was able to use my strategy well in the fight to do a good fight," Rua said. "My corner was telling me I was winning the fight and that is why I didn't press the action so much in the final rounds. I felt I was winning. Everyone who has spoken to me has told me they felt I won the fight."
He could have won the fight. And he probably should have won the fight.
But he only has himself and his own people to blame. Had they sent him out with a sense of urgency for the fourth and fifth rounds, history might have been different on Saturday. Rua managed to shatter some of the Machida Myth with his performance, but he didn't leave with the belt around his waist.
As outraged as many are at the call, the culprits aren't Messrs. Hamilton, Peoples and Rosales.
Rather, the bad guys in this scenario are Rua's friends, partners and coaches who were all too willing to pat him on the back and cheerlead rather than to encourage him and go and finish a fight he had within his grasp.
- Lyoto Machida