Lyoto Machida made a career out of baiting traps for former collegiate wrestlers, then reaping the rewards.
Sometimes, against the likes Randy Couture, Ryan Bader, and in a UFC light heavyweight title victory over Rashad Evans, Machida frustrated them until they made mistakes, then scored vicious knockouts.
Other times, as with Tito Ortiz and Dan Henderson, he picked them apart at the margins and emerged a decision winner.
Eventually, though, Machida’s strategic style was destined to backfire. Such was the case at UFC 163 on Saturday night, as “The Dragon” dropped a decision to Phil Davis at HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
"It was a very tough fight, I was disappointed in the result,” Machida (19-4) said through an interpreter at the post-fight news conference. “I believe I went out there, [and] I was more aggressive. I went out to fight all the time.”
Davis (12-1, 1 no-contest), a former NCAA champion wrestler at Penn State, was stuffed on eight of his 10 takedown attempts over the course of the fight. Often, Machida shook free from Davis with such vigor that Davis wasn’t able to follow up and go for second-chance takedowns after the initial surge.
But the two takedowns which landed came in the closing minute of each of the first two rounds, and that was enough to sway the judges to see the fight in Davis’ favor as he got 29-28 scores across the board.
"I believe Phil was not looking to attack, was not going forward and was trying to score points at the end of rounds," Machida said through an interpreter at the post-fight news conference. "But this is not a wrestling match. This is MMA, and I think that the judges need to be more attentive to details. They need to look for who is going forward the most.”
Numbers provided by the UFC’s official stats provider, FightMetric, seem to bear out a solid-but-not-runaway Machida victory. Davis landed more total strikes, 29-27. But the differential is accounted for in an 11-7 second-round total, and fights are scored via individual rounds, not via aggregate.
In round one, Machida outlanded Davis in significant strikes, 10-8, and kept Davis from getting untracked over the first four minutes, before Davis scored a late takedown. Should one takedown negate Machida effectively playing his game for the remainder of the round? In round three, Machida doubled up on significant strikes, 10-5, and blocked all four of Davis’ takedown attempts.
"By the end of the fight he was hurt and bleeding,” Machida said. “I managed to land several strikes."
Either way, the victory was the biggest in the career of Davis, who trains at San Diego’s Alliance MMA alongside fighters such as Alexander Gustafsson and Dominick Cruz. Since suffering his only career loss to Rashad Evans, Davis has rebounded with three consecutive victories.
And it’s hard to fault Davis for taking advantage of a path to victory when it presented itself.
“My strategy was, he has great range, so you have to get past his range as best you can,” Davis said. “You cut him off, leave some angles, you just kinda gotta get in his face but you can’t chase him too much. He’s good going forward, he’s good going backwards. He’s good, going side to side. He’s good going every direction. That was basically it, just try to cut him off and get inside on him.”
Davis balked, though, when asked how he thought the fight should have been scored.
"I have to watch it on TV when I get home," Davis said. "It's so hard to know which rounds you won when you're watching it first-person. It looks completely different from where you're sitting [than] from where I was. So I don't know. I'll have to go and check it out.”
The frustrating loss leaves Machida in a tough career spot. Last August, he was promised a title shot against Jon Jones after he knocked out Ryan Bader at UFC on FOX 4 in Los Angeles. But Machida didn’t earn brownie points with company president Dana White when he turned down a short-notice shot against Jones at UFC 152, and the Davis loss shoves Machida further down in the light heavyweight pecking order.
In talking with Yahoo! Sports on Saturday, White made it clear he’s in no rush to do Machida any favors.
"Machida definitely won that fight, definitely," White told Kevin Iole. "But that's his fault. He knows MMA judging sucks. It's terrible, it's [expletive], but he went out there and let him do it. I can't remember whether it was the first or the second, but Machida had that combination where he threw all those punches and ran across the cage and ended with that knee. That's when he's really good. But he wants to stay back and be a counter puncher and wait and fight cautiously.”
This leaves Machida pondering his options.
"I just have to have positive thinking," said Machida, who also held open the possibility of a drop to middleweight. "I can't keep crying. We know what happened. Let's see what the future reserves for us."
But the bottom line, as far as Davis is concerned, involves one of the sport’s most repeated talking points: Don't leave it in the hands of the judges.
"I know how this works," Davis said. "Anytime it goes to the judges, you forfeit your right to be upset. You've just got to give it to the judges, and whatever they say is what they say."
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter: @DaveDoylemma
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