By Andrew Vontz
PULL QUOTE: “In life, you’re always alone. You’re born alone. You die alone. And when you step into the ring you’re alone.”
At noon on the Monday after Brock Lesnar seized the UFC heavyweight title and flashed the booing crowd a double bird salute, a duo of twenty-something SoCal bros in drooping board shorts stumble into the Black House MMA gym in the heart of Compton. A nondescript industrial building located in a row of similarly anonymous businesses, the Black House isn’t the kind of place you find unless you know about it. Or unless you’re totally clueless and damn lucky. The pair walk straight past the framed, autographed fighting trunks of UFC middleweight champ Anderson Silva and MMA legend Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira that hang on the wall in the lobby opposite an old, comfy couch and trundle to the cusp of the mat room.
Inside, UFC light Heavyweight champion Lyoto ‘The Dragon’ Machida snaps off crisp strikes in front of a photographer. “Must be some kind of fight place,” says one of the interlopers to the other, clueless they’re witnessing one of the best pound-for-pound mixed martial artists in the history of the sport practice his craft. As they watch, a Black House employee walks up. “Can I help you guys?” Turns out they’re looking for a different business at the same address. The manager directs them to a different building in back and they shuffle their DC’s out the front door.
During a break from striking, the champ parks it on the couch clad in just white karate pants. His cauliflower ears immediately signal that you’re in the presence of a man who has gone to war on a grappling mat, yet there’s little in the way of visible damage on the 31-year-old’s 6’1” frame, even on his youthful, handsome face. Conversing with his naturally beautiful Brazilian wife Fabyola in Portuguese, their native tongue, a smile blooms on Machida’s face followed by a soft breath of laughter.
The MMA press has described the unorthodox, karate-based fighting style that Machida has used to pick apart the UFC’s best fighters as ‘elusive,’ boring even. “One time in a fan Q and A I was asked if I’d be interested in a rematch with Machida,” says former UFC Middleweight Champion Rich Franklin, who lost a bout to Machida in Japan in 2003. “I said the bad thing about Machida is his fight style is very boring and that you have to fight a slow, boring fight to beat him. Then he knocked out his next two opponents.” Indeed, before his last two fights when he knocked out both Thiago Alves at UFC 94 and Rashad Evans at UFC 98 to take the belt, Machida couldn’t escape the ‘boring’ label.
To address these criticisms, Machida took up strength training a year ago specifically to bolster his knockout power. It was the first time in his life he’d ever lifted weights. “It’s important for fans to understand what I’m doing. In the past a lot of people would miss my moves and nothing would happen to the guy. Now they might miss my moves but they see the other guy falling to the canvas. Now they get it.”
“Just touching him is hard,” says Stephan Bonnar, who lost a 2003 bout in Rio versus Machida due to stoppage from cuts. “Look at how many times he makes fighters swing and miss. It’s not like he all of the sudden learned how to knock people out. He’s always had that potential.” While fighters with a command of striking, takedowns, and jiu jitsu have come to dominate the UFC to such a degree that a mastery of all three combat arts has become requisite for success at any level of mixed martial arts, Machida excels in all three disciplines plus Machida karate, the derivative of Shotokan karate that his father Yoshizo Machida invented.
It’s a lethal combination. Opponents only manage to land a strike on Machida once every two and a half rounds, making him the least struck fighter in the UFC. He has never lost a fight in his professional mixed martial arts career, nor has he ever lost a single round. Just when it looks like an opponent might lay a hand on him, he slides out of reach, parries their blows, then at the least anticipated moment explodes forward while simultaneously attacking with furious, direct strikes instead of pushing forward and then attacking as has become the dominant convention in the UFC.
Born in Brazil and raised in Bélem, a town on the cusp of the Amazon far from the global epicenter of Jiu Jitsu in Rio, Machida speaks passable basic English but relies on an interpreter for interviews with English-speaking media. The UFC nation has grown accustomed to outsized personalities like Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson with his trademark chain necklace and infamous monster truck. Machida is polite, well-spoken, happily married and still trains with his brothers and father at the family gym in Bélem. He counts Anderson Silva and Minotauro Nogueira among his confidants and rolls with his family instead of an army of disciples-in-training.
“Everything we talk about, every conversation, somehow has to do with fighting and martial arts philosophy,” says Fabyola from her perch besides Machida on the couch in the Black House. “I was going to stay home with Taiyo, but Lyoto insisted I come,” she says, referring to the couple’s 10-month-old-son. “I want to show my kid what real life is like,” says Machida. “My wife didn’t want to leave the baby alone. But I told her, no, we have to teach him that he’s not always going to have us and that when he’s alone, he’s alone.”
It’s a hard man’s philosophy and it’s the Machida family way, a path that Lyoto started to pursue shortly after learning to walk. When you consider Machida’s upbringing, it’s no wonder that the Karate Kid is his favorite martial arts film and that he identifies his journey with the struggles of Ralph Macchio’s character, Daniel. Born to a Japanese father and a Brazilian mother, the Machida family lived above Yoshizo’s dojo. “My father’s gym was like our playpen.” He started training with two of his brothers when he was 3 years old. “The other brothers were very technical, tough guys, but Lyoto had the right body type and was trained to be a champion,” says Yoshizo. At 13, Lyoto attained his black belt in karate. At 15, he saw his first UFC fight, dedicated himself to becoming champion, undertook the study of jiu jitsu and began his real training in earnest. “I’ve been waking up at 5 a.m. every day since I was 15. If we slept in, my father would slap us in the face and say, come on, it’s time to train.”
Waking up at 5 a.m. was the easy part. By his teens, Machida had already become a champion in sumo and karate. Rivals from schools representing other martial arts would often show up at the Machida gym and challenge a representative from the school to fight to prove whose style was superior. Machida’s father encouraged his sons to step up, and they did, frequently. On Sunday afternoons, Yoshizo would gather his sons to analyze life situations through the lens of martial arts philosophy. “Martial arts philosophy is very important for a fighter because it puts them in the right mindset and prepares them for any situation,” says Yoshizo. To this day Lyoto continues to study cornerstones of martial arts philosophy like the samurai master Musashi’s Book of the Five Rings. Later, after he had started training in jiu jitsu, Machida would travel to Rio whenever he had time to make the five-hour trip where he sought out the top practitioners of jiu jitsu to try to study with them. “I wasn’t accepted. No one wanted me to train there, they didn’t pay attention to me.”
After college, Machida landed a spot on the Japanese grappling circuit. “I traveled alone for almost two years and would sometimes go 10 days without talking to my family, or anyone. I was lonely.” His resolve tested, Machida drew on what he had learned in the dojo and the brothers’ Sunday discussions with their father to find strength. “I learned something in Japan that my dad had always taught me. In life, you’re always alone. You’re born alone. You die alone. And when you step into the ring you’re alone. You’re responsible for your own actions and going out there and doing and not waiting for other people.” Living out this philosophy, Machida also traveled to Thailand alone where he studied Muay Thai for 40 days. Once back in Brazil he finally found willing jiu jitsu mentors in Rio. After building a broad base in the fundamental skill sets required for mixed martial arts, he integrated all of these skills with his deep base in Machida karate and won 15 straight professional bouts including seven in the UFC until he owned the UFC Light Heavyweight belt.
“I believe that everyone who achieves greatness goes through a lot of hardships,” he says calmly as he sinks into the couch and playfully tugs Fabyola’s big toe. Those hardships include maintaining a clean diet year round, starting every day with meditation and breathing exercises at 5 a.m., strength and conditioning sessions three days a week, and going through hell in training for five hours every day to stay on top of his game.
When the conversation turns to Machida’s next fight with Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Hua at UFC 104 on October 24th, Machida’s confidence doesn’t waver. “My goal now is to defend my belt. I want to end my career one day still being the champion.” It’s a goal every champion has. Few can maintain the drive, discipline, and dedication it takes to stay on top of the game while navigating the myriad distractions that accompany fame.
It’s a challenge Franklin faced when he became Middleweight Champion in 2005 just as the sport exploded in popularity. “The attention that comes with being champion can make it difficult to keep focused on what’s important. You find yourself constantly doing photo shoots for magazines and making appearances and life completely changes. Typically when you start talking about someone being unbeatable, that’s when someone beats the person.”
Machida recognizes the dangers that come with notoriety so he continues to push himself with a helping hand from his most important mentor, his father. “I’d rate him as 75 out of 100 in terms of fulfilling his potential,” says Yoshizo. “When he won the title, I told him, now is when the real work begins.” That work includes defending the title, demonstrating the efficacy of Machida karate and, he hopes, bringing his father, brothers and family to the States to establish Machida karate schools. It’s a heavy load, but Machida thinks he’s up for the challenge. “I always look back at the beginning, at the time when I didn’t have a place to showcase my work, when I didn’t have fights scheduled, when I didn’t have fans, when I didn’t have money. I wanted all of that and that reminds me how hard I have to fight for it.” As Machida knows, every mixed martial artist is always just one lucky punch away from losing. But for now he remains undefeated, undisputed, and untouchable.