Would you really blame Lyoto Machida if he sized up the current Bellator championship picture and concluded that he had the easiest path to champ-champ status in mixed martial arts history?
After all, the former UFC light heavyweight titleholder — who makes his Bellator debut on Saturday night against Rafael Carvalho in a middleweight co-feature bout at Bellator 213 in Honolulu, Hawaii — already holds victories over the fighters who hold Bellator’s gold in his two weight classes.
Gegard Mousasi, the current Bellator middleweight champion, faced Machida on a UFC card in Brazil in 2014. Machida came out of the UFC Fight Night 36 bout a clear-cut unanimous decision victor on a pair of 50-45 scorecards and a 49-46.
Then there’s Ryan Bader, who holds the Bellator light heavyweight belt and will compete for the heavyweight title in the Grand Prix tournament finals against Fedor Emelianenko next month. Machida scored one of the most memorable knockouts of his career back at UFC on FOX 4 in Los Angeles, when Bader charged right into a picture-perfect finish.
But Machida is one of the smartest fighters in the game, and while he certainly foresees championships in his future, he’s not going to simply assume he’d be meeting the Mousasi of 2014 and the Bader of 2012 if the rematches of well-remembered UFC bouts come to pass in the Bellator cage.
“Ryan Bader is much improved as a fighter,” Machida told MMA Fighting. “You see it in the results of his fights. If I go to fight Ryan again, I am not going to expect him to be the same person. Mousasi, too. Gegard has been very strong in his fights.”
Still, though, Machida didn’t jump from the UFC to Bellator simply to cruise on a retirement tour. True, Machida is 40, but due to the style with which he has fought over the years, he has not absorbed nearly as much damage as his contemporaries who have fallen by the wayside.
And as freely as Machida admits that Bader and Mousasi have made adjustments to their games, he’s quick to point out that you shouldn’t assume that he’s not continuing to learn and grow as a competitor.
“They’ve improved, but they cannot change everything,” Machida said. “They cannot change the core of who they are. I am always learning and improving too. I won’t fight the same opponent from years ago, but they won’t be fighting the same opponent from back then, either.”
Of course, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Carvalho might not have the name recognition in the United State that Mousasi and Bader possess, but he’s an excellent competitor who is a finisher and held Bellator’s belt for two-and-a-half years before losing the title to Mousasi in May.
Whether or not the public recognizes Carvalho’s skills, Machida does, and he knows his peers do, too, and that’s why he wanted to take on a real challenge in his company debut.
“Rafael is no joke, man,” Machida said. “Rafael is a champion. I know what he can do. He is one of the best in the sport. I am serious about wanting a title fight and I want an opponent who can bring the best out of me so I can show I am ready for a title shot.”
While Machida is making no secret of his future plans — beat Carvalho and use that as a launching pad for a championship or two — you won’t see him harp on the past.
“The Dragon” has a well-deserved reputation as one of the sport’s classiest fighters, and while others who have left the UFC have gone out of their way to trash their former promotion in a manner which makes for splashy headlines, Machida has nothing bad to say about his former promoter.
“I will not talk bad about the UFC,” Machida said. “I have a great run in the UFC. Many of my greatest fights and moments were in the UFC and they were always good to me. But this is a business, and this is a business decision, and Bellator has been very welcoming and made it clear they are going to do good business. I don’t have time to look back on the past because I am looking to continue my legacy here in Bellator.”