(Ready to make some magic, gentlemen?)
Right off I’ll admit it: there isn’t anything glamorous about the Rashad Evans-Lyoto Machida title fight at UFC 98 this weekend. A champion who until recently was known for his split decision victories facing off against a challenger known for being so “elusive” that his fights often resemble a ballet more than a brawl – that’s not anyone’s dream bout, least of all a promoter’s.
But what this fight lacks in star power and fireworks, it makes up for with sheer, good old-fashioned quality. In many ways Evans-Machida is the best, most legitimate title fight the UFC has put on in nearly a year. Here’s why:
1. Strength of Record
Between the two competitors in Saturday night’s main event there are 27 wins, 1 draw and no defeats. In boxing that wouldn’t be so impressive, but in MMA it’s as rare as a decent Michael Bay movie. There’s an easy appeal involved in seeing two guys who have never been beaten square off, simply because somebody is going to experience a depressing new low for the first time. It’s just a question of whether the crying in the locker room will be in Portuguese or English.
2. An All Too Deserving Challenger
For a while it looked like Machida’s style of fighting (almost) without fighting would make him the best light heavyweight not to get a shot at the UFC belt. If “Rampage” Jackson had been healthy enough to take the Evans fight, Machida would still be getting overlooked. But fortunately for him the UFC can no longer ignore him and really had no choice but to give him a shot. That’s a stark contrast to recent title fights like Couture-Lesnar and Silva-Cote that left many of us wondering exactly what the challenger had done to warrant a title fight. There are no such questions when it comes to Machida. He deserves this. The fact that he’s getting it, regardless of how or why, is almost enough to make you think the UFC’s system of deciding top contenders is completely fair and unbiased. Almost.
3. A Contrast of Styles
Norman Mailer once described two opposing boxers as being so different in the ring that “one could not pass a bowl of soup to the other without spilling it.” So it is with Evans and Machida. Evans is the hard-charging wrestler who relies on controlling the tempo of a fight and on brief spasms of fantastic violence to end them. Machida is the fluid karate master who picks his spots without offering any one devastating attack, but is gone by the time you even consider a counter-attack. At times he seems as if he doesn’t want to hurt his opponents so much as instruct them. Evans, on the other hand, has no problem grabbing his balls and coming right after you. When two fighters are this different you can’t help but want to see what will happen when they’re locked in a cage together. Maybe nothing much. Maybe something that’s new to both of them.
4. Because We’ll Finally Be Able to Shut Up About It
Evans beat Forrest Griffin to take the title, but so what, say his detractors. And Machida has won a bunch of decisions, but he can’t dance around for five rounds against someone who matters. These are both somewhat valid criticisms, but after Saturday night at least one of them will be put to rest, thank God. Either Evans solves the riddle of Machida and proves he’s the true champ, or Machida shows us that he really has figured out something about the fight game that has, shall we say, eluded everyone else. Either way, the debate can finally stop.