It’s satisfying to watch someone work his way to the top in his chosen field, especially when it’s something as unpredictable as the mixed martial arts. It’s even more gratifying when that person exemplifies qualities you respect and wish more people would emulate. So it’s with no small sense of excitement that I exercise the privilege to talk about fourth-degree shotokan karate black-belt Lyoto Machida, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s light-heavyweight titleholder.
Back in 2006, when MMA’s popularity started to spike, Lyoto Machida wasn’t even a blip on the radar. He was a stealth competitor who quietly devoured his opponents one by one. He made no splashy headlines with his decision finishes, but he gradually became the kind of MMA fighter his peers hope they never have to face. Undefeated in MMA, he scored a string of seven victories in the UFC. With every win, he garnered more accolades and more admiring fans.
Just when people were beginning to define him as an elusive, contact-shy tactician who preferred decisions to finishes, the half-Japanese half-Brazilian displayed his knockout power by dispatching Thiago Silva, a frighteningly physical specimen. Thiago Silva, a thickly muscled pit bull of a man, was seen as the most dangerous opponent he could face, someone who’d push for a stand-up battle. In pre-fight interviews, he predicted he’d knock out Lyoto Machida. Cynics and doubters thought Lyoto Machida’s shotokan skills would render him less than courageous and figured his downfall was inevitable.
Instead, Lyoto Machida controlled Thiago Silva in every possible sector. He put him on the ground twice and then, faced with a defensive clinch against the fence, he kinked Thiago Silva’s knee, sending him to the floor. Lyoto Machida followed him like a diver, perfectly timing a blow that knocked the beast out cold just as the horn sounded. Hollywood couldn’t have scripted a better finish.
Lyoto Machida followed that seeming anomaly with a spectacular knockout of reigning light-heavyweight champ Rashad Evans, another undefeated mixed martial artist. The equally easy-looking win signaled his arrival at the pinnacle of success. From this point on, he’ll have to adopt a new approach to competition—namely, the more challenging task of defending a title, one of the true tests of a champion’s caliber.
Along with Georges St-Pierre, the current UFC welterweight champion and an exponent of kyokushin karate, Lyoto Machida has become the martial arts’ standard-bearer and ambassador to the world of MMA. His family tradition and lifelong commitment to training, improving, meeting challenges and overcoming them epitomize what it means to be a martial artist and what dedication and discipline can achieve.
Any martial artist who enters professional competition is treading on thin ice. On the one hand, he’s putting his skills and education up for public scrutiny and even ridicule. On the other hand, he risks being branded an opportunist who’s sold out his training for profit and fame. Lyoto Machida is safe from those perils. He’s able to employ not only his karate but also his sumo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills, proving that he’s thoroughly rooted in the martial arts. He isn’t likely to suffer from the temptation to brawl or begin a new discipline to shore up a major gap in his knowledge. Money won’t sway his focus because this is the culmination of a lifetime of preparation.
Some may claim that Lyoto Machida enjoys an unfair advantage, having been raised in a household of martial artists, yet the choice to follow this path was his. He’s the one facing danger alone in the cage, standing up to the tireless media focus on this or that attribute, always searching for the slightest weakness to exploit. More than ever, this is the time when his training will be tested. It’s up to him to demonstrate that it’s possible to participate in combat for public entertainment and still maintain all the qualities that have made him a champion.
For all his accomplishments and the balanced, samurai-deadly philosophy that he embodies, Black Belt has named Lyoto Machida its 2009 MMA Fighter of the Year.
(This profile originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of Black Belt.)