UFC

Machida already a MW contender

'The Dragon' breathed fire into the contender's race in his middleweight debut.
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Damon Martin

Damon Martin is a veteran mixed martial arts journalist who has been covering the sport since 2004. His work has been published in CNN, Bleacher Report, MMAWeekly.com, Yahoo! Sports, UFC.com and SportsIllustrated.com. He also co-hosts The Great Debate Radio MMA podcast, and has appeared on ESPN Radio and SportsNet Radio. Follow him on Twitter.

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It's not easy to enter a new division off a loss, much less carry a 3-4 record over seven fights and still with one knockout immediately enter the discussion of being a title contender. But that's exactly what Lyoto Machida managed to do with a thunderous high kick knockout to finish Mark Munoz in England on Saturday.

Over the last few years, Machida has been an anomaly in the light heavyweight division, rising all the way to the stage where he won the title in 2009 to the point where he was involved in back-to-back fights where his elusive style and refusal to engage mired him in controversial decisions.

Following his last loss to Phil Davis at UFC 163 in his home country of Brazil, Machida finally decided to make the move down to middleweight. Machida had previously avoided the division out of respect to his good friend and training partner Anderson Silva, but after his title reign ended courtesy of Chris Weidman, it opened up a whole new world of possibilities.

Ironically, Machida's first fight at 185 pounds ended up against another friend and training partner in Mark Munoz, who he was working with just days before he got the call from the UFC offering him the fight. The middleweight version of Machida didn't look much different from the light heavyweight fighter in terms of his body size or weight at fight time, but the performance was like a revelation compared to his last few fights at 205 pounds.

Machida came out aggressive against Munoz, firing off a nasty series of body kicks that cracked like leather when connecting with his opponent's midsection. The strikes to the body were like a harbinger for what was coming next because just when he appeared to launch another kick to the ribs, he went high instead and connected his foot to Munoz's head.

Munoz crumbled to the mat, struggling to cover up and to his credit, Machida didn't follow through with more unnecessary strikes to add to the punishment. Machida went 5 for 10 in the striking department with the last being the knockout blow, while Munoz finished without landing a single punch or kick to his opponent.

Machida understood the gravity of the situation going into Saturday's fight with Munoz. While he's been known as a finisher for much of his UFC career, the images burned into everyone's collective memories of late have been him bouncing around the Octagon, throwing a quick combination and moving back out of the way again instead of engaging with his opponents. It cost him a win in his last fight and Machida was well aware just how big this victory was for him even though it came at the expense of beating a good friend and training partner.

"It felt good to get the win. Unfortunately it was against Mark, who is a close friend, I didn't want to hurt him, but it was a good win," Machida said at the post fight press conference. "Especially coming off that controversial loss that a lot of people thought I won against Phil (Davis) it was good to win tonight."

As the old saying goes, "You're only as good as your last fight", and with his head kick knockout of Munoz, Machida was able to erase the memory of his last two lackluster trips to the Octagon. There are now a world of possibilities in this weight class for the former champion because Machida hasn't faced any of these competitors and if his performance on Saturday is any indicator, he's a force to be reckoned with at 185 pounds.

Like many fighters before him, Machida wasn't ready to start calling out anybody by name for his next matchup, although UFC president Dana White seemed to have some ideas.

"I don't know (who I want next). My boss is on my side, he can decide," Machida said.

"He said he wants to fight Vitor Belfort, that's what he said," White fired back as Machida laughed sitting right next to him at the press conference.

One win doesn't necessarily mean this version of Machida will show up every time, so consistency is his key now. He's had successful runs like this before including his front kick knockout of UFC Hall Of Famer Randy Couture as well as his one punch KO over Ultimate Fighter season 10 winner Ryan Bader.

What will define Machida's run at middleweight is his ability to flatten opponents and dominate the field the way other contenders like Chris Weidman and Vitor Belfort did as they charged to the head of the division. It's too early to start calling this the new Machida era, but the early returns are nothing but promising.

On the opposite side of the Octagon, Mark Munoz now has to fly home to California with another loss on his record as he stumbled once again to try and establish his place among the elite fighters in the middleweight division. Munoz has come close to title contention before, but can't seem to conquer the best fighters at 185 pounds to justify his top five ranking. Losses to Yushin Okami, Chris Weidman and now Lyoto Machida push Munoz back to the end of the line and at 35 years of age, the clock is ticking on his ability to make another run at the belt.

"I don't know where it takes me," Munoz said after the loss. "I'm just going to go back, work harder, this is just another adversity I'm facing, but that's what builds champions. Life is 10-percent what happens to you, and 90-percent how you react to it. I've just got to keep pushing through this."

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