This weekend, the jockeying for position within the division begins in earnest when Derek Brunson takes on Lyoto Machida at UFC Sao Paulo. To be clear, neither Brunson or Machida has a realistic path to a title shot based off a Saturday win, but as the division begins to heat up again, the loser will fall far out of the conversation. In that way, victory may be more of a relief than a celebration.
Brunson is at least entering the bout with some momentum. After a two-fight losing streak—including a controversial decision to former champion Anderson Silva—Brunson rebounded by starching Dan Kelly in a 76-second knockout in June.
Machida, once one of the dominant fighters in mixed martial arts, comes in following the most turbulent stretch of his career. A loser of three of his last four—including two straight by finish—Machida (22-7) compounded his in-cage struggles with the first out-of-the-cage trouble in his career. In April 2016, Machida voluntarily admitted using the steroid 7-keto-DHEA, and although he claimed he did not know it was banned by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the administrative body still smacked him with an 18-month suspension.
Much his changed in his weight class since his last appearance. At that time in mid-November 2015, Chris Weidman was still the champion. The belt has since gone from Weidman to Luke Rockhold, and then to Michael Bisping, with Robert Whittaker as an interim champion.
Just as significantly, much time has passed, and Machida is now approaching 40 years old. That milestone may not be intrinsically important but then again ... two years ago, Fightnomics’ Reed Kuhn examined the performances of fighters over 40 years old in the UFC. To be blunt, it is not good. Collectively, the group had a winning percentage of just 36.5 percent, with Randy Couture (9-6 post-40) as the only fighter who sustained extended success after entering his fourth decade. Similarly, Couture is the only 40+ fighter to ever win a UFC title. It is possible some time away reinvigorated Machida’s body, but statistics don’t bode well for him.
So Machida has plenty of factors going against him here even before we get to Brunson. The 33-year-old North Carolinian is best known for his blazing starts. All six of his eight UFC stoppage wins have come inside the first round. That should make for an interesting opening, as Brunson (17-5) prizes this early aggression in an attempt to overwhelm his opponent’s circuits and strike before they can regain any semblance of composure. That’s a dangerous game against Machida, whose entire offense is predicated on precision counter-striking.
Because of that, Brunson’s approach is the key to what is likely to be the pivotal first round. If Brunson comes out like a wild man as he did against Whittaker, forgoing defense for an all-out blitz, he will probably get caught again. If he fights with some patience as he did against Uriah Hall, he is much more likely to leave with his preferred result.
Brunson’s athletic ability is among his best attributes. He is quick and powerful, and he is strong in scrambles. So it would make sense why he would want to fight fast, to force action. It’s led him to most of his wins, but has also gotten him in danger. If Brunson can find a middle ground as he did with Silva, he should do fine.
His wrestling may play a big part in the scheduled five-rounder. While he lands only 32 percent of his takedowns, according to FightMetric, in his UFC fights that have gone past one round, Brunson averages over three takedowns per bout. To further illustrate his abilities, he took down former Olympic wrestler Yoel Romero three times when the pair fought in 2014. Machida, with a 75 percent takedown defense, is not easy to put on the mat, but three of his last four opponents have managed to do it. With Machida’s educated footwork, Brunson will need to take his time and chain his way into takedowns from punches rather than shoot from distance; Machida will see any lazy attempts coming and easily resist or sidestep them.
Machida’s strength has always been his accuracy. He’s landed 53 percent of his attempted strikes, which ranks him among the all-time elite UFC strikers. His angles and spacing fuel this style, creating the distance to benefit his counter-striking preferences. He is cunning and calculated, and he often fights in bursts, and only after taking in his opponent’s approach.
In Brunson, he will see holes to exploit. Brunson can get sloppy, leading with chin in forward charges that rob him of his ability to defend. It was exploited to great effect by Whittaker, who landed a smashing left hook against as Brunson practically sprinted after him, a strike that proved to be the beginning of the end. Machida has much better footwork than Brunson, and he will not be flustered by any aggression his opponent will offer. He’s almost always in a perfect position to counter it.
His patience also aids him greatly. Many fighters simply cannot stand sustained periods of inactivity and fall prey to the urge to do something, anything. Machida will stand outside of his opponent’s range and wait ... and wait ... and wait some more. Sure, he’ll feint turning over the hip for a possible kick, or twitch his left shoulder to give the appearance of a straight, but most of the time, it is a trap. He wants his opponent to step into the void, where he’ll have another strike prepared. However, Machida’s patience can also work against him. You may recall his 2013 loss to Phil Davis or his 2010 loss to Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, in both of which Machida was defeated by decision after low strike output. Against Davis, he threw just 61 strikes; against Jackson 71.
Of the two, Machida is clearly the superior striker. He has a better mastery of distance control, boasts excellent power (his 13 knockdowns all-time is in the top 10 in UFC history), and is composed under fire.
However, Brunson has his own advantages. He’s likely to throw more volume, is the better athlete, and has been quite active with six fights since Machida last hit the Octagon.
If they had fought two years ago, Machida would have been the favorite, however, in the time since, Brunson has gotten a lot of big-fight experience. He won’t be intimidated, and having found some success against Machida’s longtime friend and a fellow patient southpaw in Anderson Silva, the action in the fight won’t begin as a foreign feeling to him.
That experience will play big dividends. Brunson will probably eschew his usually early barrages and fight with cautious aggression. His activity will pile up points, as will the occasional takedowns. After five rounds, Brunson takes a unanimous decision.