Post-Fight Thoughts: Lyoto Machida -vs- Vitor Belfort
Among all the other bouts on the UFC 224 fight card, none filled me with a mix of intrigue and despair as this one. A pairing of two tenured, Brazilian MMA legends, both in the end stages of their respective careers, that left me more apprehensive than excited to see it unfold. Vitor Belfort, having first competed in the UFC back in 1997, had not won a bout — save for a tepid decision over a completely shot Nate Marquardt — since starching Dan Henderson in 2015. Lyoto Machida had not fared much better, notching a fairly lackluster win over Eryk Anders in February, to halt a 3-fight losing streak that saw the former light heavyweight champion bludgeoned senseless in each loss.
This was about as fair of a fight as one could envision for both men, but that didn't fill me with much enthusiasm as I found myself wondering if either should even still be fighting. I had Machida pegged as the favourite; unless he was completely washed-up, "The Dragon" was always the paper to Vitor Belfort's scissors. Even though Vitor had shifted his focus, and became more of a counter-fighter in his later years, he had not yielded much success from this transition. In his fights with Chris Weidman, Kelvin Gastelum, Gegard Mousasi and even "Jacare" Souza, his counter-striking was insufficient to finish his opponents, leaving him to throw a flurry and then get destroyed by his opponents' return fire. We saw flashes of Vitor's exceptional hand-speed, but without the fight-ending power his strikes once possessed.
Despite feeling Machida was justifiably a favourite in this fight, I was still concerned. After being forced into an 18 month layoff — courtesy of USADA and their questionable policies when determining what substances are banned — Machida's return was marred by a brutal KO loss to Derek Brunson. Prior to the Brunson loss, Machida had not fared any better: getting put to sleep by Yoel Romero and staggered with hard shots by Luke Rockhold before he mercifully locked in a rear-naked choke. Since his 5th round rally in what was ultimately a losing effort, against then middleweight champion Chris Weidman, Machida has not been the same fighter who was a fixture at the top of the middleweight and light heavyweigh divisioms for a long time. Machida still fought his familiar style, but his speed seemed diminished and his strikes lacked the same power they once had — an expected decline for a fighter edging closer and closer to their 40th birthday.
All things considered, this match-up seemed about as fair of a fight as either could ask for. I had already made up my mind that Vitor should really, really consider retirement from competition after the fight — regardless of whether he won or lost. As for Machida, I was unsure; I was under no delusions that we would see a return to form, but there was still a chance that Machida could demonstrate he wasn't completely shot. I would describe my expectations of Machida as "cautiously optimistic," as I really did not want to set myself up for disappointment. As a long-standing fan of MMA, watching veteran fighters fall off has become harder and harder to digest, so this fight carried a lot of mixed feelings with it.
The first round went about as expected; Machida turned in a vintage performance in the sense that he threw very few strikes and spent the bulk of the first frame assessing his opponent and getting their timing down. Vitor was also very cautious, not allowing himself to get over-eager and charge into a fight-ending counter shot. If I wasn't so emotionally invested in the fight, I would accept any assessment of the first round that called it "boring." The second round looked to be playing out exactly the same as the first, with two aging fighters waging a very cautious battle, each waiting for the other to commit a tactical error. Then, out of nowhere, Lyoto Machida faked with his right leg and then blasted Belfort with a front kick from the opposite leg, knocking him completely unconscious and ending the fight 1 minute into the second round. It looked almost exactly like when Anderson Silva finished Belfort with the very same shot, at UFC 126.
As a huge fan of Lyoto Machida, the ending of this fight was the best I could have asked for, but is still bittersweet. Based on his peformance in this fight, I would expect the UFC to continue offering Machida tough fights with top-ranked opponents, even though his last two wins are over an unranked rookie and the shell of Vitor Belfort. When you have the resumé of a Lyoto Machida, you're not going to get easy fights; you're either going to keep winning tough fights or act as a stepping stone for the next generation of up-and-comers. The same would have been true for Belfort, had he won, except there is even less reason to believe he would be competitive against the new breed of future contenders. It's obvious that Machida has something left to offer, albeit probably not much; likewise, it's obvious that Vitor should be looking to transition to the next stage of his career and retire.
I'm still apprehensive about future match-ups for Machida, but I am adamant that I do not want to see Vitor Belfort fighting again. This fight went almost exactly as expected, with the only surprise — and a mild one at that — was that Machida didn't look slower and more shop-worn than he is. Combat sports don't allow for aging gracefully, and MMA is is no exception. Vitor Belfort entered the sport as an Adonis, dishing out violent finishes to all who dared to stand before him, 21 years later he looks like a reasonably fit dad as he notched his 5th KO loss in 7 fights. Sadly, there is just as much chance that Belfort ends up fighting elsewhere, because as long as a fighter's name carries even a scintilla of value there will always be a promoter willing to send them out to get seperated from consciousness. I hope Vitor Belfort does not follow in the steps of so many other fighters who never knew when to stop. The same goes for Machida, even if he doesn't look to be entirely done just yet.
This fight was less depressing than I expected, but I still have concerns. Machida's KO was superb and his refusal to follow-up with additional, unneccessary strikes was a perfect moment of sportsmanship, all of which made the best of a bad situation. Being a fan of combat sports for any length of time will eventually result in being conflicted over fights like this — unless you're completely dead inside.
Published: May 13th, 2018.