When Lyoto Machida steps in the Octagon next Saturday at UFC 113, he will face the man many, including myself, believe should be carrying the light heavyweight championship belt into the arena. Maurico "Shogun" Rua, the challenger, will greet Machida respectfully, as he normally would. But, there will undoubtedly be a hint of scorn, perhaps traced on Shogun’s brow, clinched in his jaw, or, most likely, buried deep in the eyes that stare down his foe.
It is not scorn for Machida, though. Shogun reserves this contempt for himself, for not finishing the fight, as well as a healthy doubt for the judges who declared Machida the victor. The feelings within Shogun will be those he never expected seven months ago, at UFC 104, should he find himself facing Machida once more.
That first fight was borne of necessity for the newly crowned king of 205 pounds. After eviscerating Rashad Evans to claim the title in May, Machida found himself lacking any obvious challengers. A karateka, Machida’s unorthodox style had confounded all opponents during his run to the title. Embarrassments of Tito Ortiz, Thiago Silva, and Evans had many (most notably Joe Rogan) proclaiming the beginning of the "Machida Era" in which a long reign awaited the unsolvable champion. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson seemed the only legitimate threat to Machida but he was occupied with The Ultimate Fighter. Therefore, the UFC was forced to turn to a fighter with a relatively weak claim of contention, a fighter who most considered fodder for the new champion.
Shogun arrived in the UFC with a strong tailwind of hype, and deservedly so. He tore through PRIDE’s legendary 2005 LHW Grand Prix at just 23 years old and was widely considered the best in the world at that weight. He seemed to be Wanderlei Silva 2.0—equally as savage as his mentor but with the tools to combat the newest iteration of mixed martial artists. Per usual, the UFC gave Shogun a fair challenge before the newcomer was thrown into title contention. That challenge was Forrest Griffin, who proceeded to weather an early storm and submit a weary Shogun late in the third round.
That loss left many questioning whether or not Shogun was truly deserving of all his praise. He was, after all, The Second Coming. And while a loss to Forrest Griffin is no blight upon any record, he never was and never will be considered a wrecking machine. It became known after the fight that Shogun had severe knee injuries that unquestionably contributed to his fading late. A rebound match against Mark Coleman proved nothing for Shogun, who scored a late, merciful knockout against the 45-year-old. Only against a deteriorated Chuck Liddell did Rua appear to be back to form, yet it was difficult to gauge considering the status of Liddell at the time.
Still, a win over the "Ice Man" was deemed enough to throw Shogun in with Machida. Many fans and media scoffed at the matchup that surely would result in an easy victory for Machida. Shogun had fallen from grace, all his accomplishments washed away in the "What have you done for me lately?"-MMA community, and Machida was the darling of the moment.
On that night in October, however, doubters and believers alike witnessed the reemergence of the most feared fighter in the world. Yet, this was a new athlete they cheered on in disbelief. His reputation was largely built upon relentless aggression and titanium durability; Shogun had never been classified as a "smart fighter" due to his propensity to throw caution to the wind and just brawl. Conventional wisdom held that Machida was a riddle damn near impossible to solve, with his Shotokan stance and unparalleled agility. Defying expectations, Shogun came into the fight with the one game plan that could stymie Machida. He harnessed the brutal Muay Thai he’d honed in the glory days of Brazil’s Chute Boxe camp into a precise attack on the champion’s lead leg and midsection. The heavy kicks Shogun employed kept Machida at bay and evened up exchanges that—against any other opponent—would have left Machida unscathed.
Machida, being an excellent fighter, did significant damage to Shogun as well. Many a knee pounded Rua’s ribs in addition to a few right hooks that truly buzzed the challenger. When the scores were being tallied, though, Machida had accrued enough damage to seem downright bizarre, considering how infrequently he’d been hit before. The busted lip and bruised ribs told a story that Shogun’s face did not. No, Shogun had the countenance of a winner who’d just defied all odds and survived a tactical war with a master tactician.
But it was Machida’s hand raised and Shogun being left empty-handed that set the MMA world ablaze after the match. Dana White immediately declared a rematch for whenever both competitors were healthy and ready to fight again. It was a great match with ebbs and flows favoring both men, thus the instant rematch was warmly welcomed.
Despite another loss being tallied to Rua’s record on that night, he accomplished more than any belt could do for him. Everything he was once considered had been forsaken and forgotten before even reaching his athletic prime. He went into the lair of a Dragon that seemed invincible and, though he returned with no gold, came back with a respect forged in violent fire. When he challenges the Dragon again next Saturday, a bit of that fire will be in his eyes and it might just be the difference in the fight.