Machida vs. Mousasi is a stylistic treat

With Rashad Evans' injury and a 'Rocky' story taking over the MMA world in the last 24 hours, the focus has fallen off Lyoto Machida and Gegard Mousasi, a main event that could give rise to a title challenger.

Holding court in his Las Vegas office, Dana White had been animatedly speaking for over a half-hour, answering questions about any number of topics related to his promotion. He’d discussed Daniel Cormier and Rashad Evans, Alistair Overeem and Chael Sonnen, Ian McCall, UFC Fight Pass, the future of pay-per-view and the developing “Rocky” story of Patrick Cummins. Everything it seemed, but the actual fight card scheduled for this weekend, until he paused and switched tracks on his own.

“Is nobody in this room as excited about Machida and f**king Mousasi as I am?” he asked. “We haven’t even talked about Machida and Mousasi. Is anybody not excited by it?”

It does appear that for some reason, the main event of Saturday’s UFC Fight Night show in Jaraguá do Sul is falling under the radar, this despite the fact that the winner could be on deck for the winner of May’s Chris Weidman vs. Vitor Belfort championship matchup. Machida is currently ranked No. 4 while Mousasi is moving down from a division where he was ranked No. 9.

Part of the seeming lack of enthusiasm could stem from the easy-going nature of both fighters. Neither is particularly compelling in interview form or goes out of their way to sell themselves. For each, the only product is the final product. With some fighters, that’s a problem. With these two, it should be enough.

Machida has done plenty enough in his career to engender respect. A former UFC light-heavyweight champion, he excels in the standup aspect with his singular striking style, and is solid in everything else.

[Mousasi] is a stylistic and intellectual peer for Machida, which few others have been able to claim walking into a cage opposite him.

It is Mousasi who confounds so many in the fight world, although it’s not easy to understand why. Rarely do you see someone with a record so impressive (34-3-2, with 29 finishes) yet a reputation so mixed. While some view him as an elite talent, others argue that he’s vastly overrated, or that he will crack under the pressure of a strong wrestling attack.

While his backers point to a dominant four-fight run that saw him defeat and finish Melvin Manhoef, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Mark Hunt and Renato “Babalu” Sobral in consecutive fights, his skeptics point to duds in his three most high-profile fights in the U.S.

Back in April 2010, Mousasi faced “King Mo” Muhammad Lawal for the Strikeforce light-heavyweight title, and could only capture a single round after getting taken down 11 times in the five-round match. A year later, he fought Keith Jardine, who was largely considered on the downside of his career, and Mousasi fought him to a draw. Finally, in April 2013, he fought Ilir Latifi on short notice and pointed his way to a decision.

However, all of those fights also have significant factors that should be pointed out. When he fought Lawal, Mousasi actually out-landed him from the bottom 171-124, and by the end of the bout, Lawal’s left eye was swollen shut. The loss was more an indictment on his wrestling defense than his overall game, and that’s an area he’s shown vast improvement in recently. Against Jardine, Mousasi would have won if it wasn’t for a single illegal upkick that cost him a point. The rest of the fight was lopsided in his favor, as he outlanded Jardine 146-21. It was the biggest blowout of a draw ever. Against Latifi, he was competing with an injured knee that required surgery shortly afterward.

Of course, many fights have complicating factors, but it’s as if he’s constantly defined by those three performances rather than the 36 others he’s had in cages and rings across the world.

As his detractors will point out, opponent choice has been less than stellar at times as well, but that’s what should make this Machida fight so intriguing. This is the fight he has always needed and maybe even deserved.

Early this week, the great striking analyst Jack Slack described Mousasi as “shape-shifting” in the headline to his piece about his adaptive use of styles. He is the rare fighter who can alter his approach and stance and timing based on whatever his opponent does best. That is enormously compelling against Machida’s patient, counterstriking approach. After seven years in the UFC, Machida is no longer an unsolvable riddle, he’s just difficult. Yet Machida also added a new wrinkle in his offense in his last fight, showing far more aggression than normal in taking the center of the cage against Mark Munoz. For now it’s impossible to know whether that was a change made specifically for Munoz, or that he feels better about attacking at his newer weight class, since he generally has less distance to navigate against smaller opponents.

Mousasi though is fairly tall and rangy and understands distance and the intricacies of different striking styles. In a way, he’s a stylistic and intellectual peer for Machida, which few others have been able to claim walking into a cage opposite him. Even Machida acknowledged this when I asked him about Mousasi’s adaptability in the heat of battle.

“He’s a guy that’s different than most,” he said. “His takedown setups are different, his striking is different, so he’s a highly difficult opponent. Definitely, I think when you end up fighting somebody smart, the fight ends up flowing better.”