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Breaking Down the Battle of the Unbeatens

Michael DiSanto, UFC - In a year of firsts, UFC 98 gives the fans yet another history-making fight.

Saturday night will mark the first time in UFC history that two undefeated fighters square off for the Light Heavyweight Championship.

By Michael DiSanto

In a year of firsts, UFC 98 gives the fans yet another history-making fight.

Saturday night will mark the first time in UFC history that two undefeated fighters square off for the Light Heavyweight Championship.

Champion Rashad Evans has yet to taste defeat after nearly 20 professional bouts. The only blemish on his otherwise perfect record is a 2007 draw with former champion Tito Ortiz.

Lyoto Machida, who will challenge for Evans’ crown, has an equally impressive record. He is a perfect 6-0 in the UFC, and his overall professional record reveals nothing but wins after six years of mixed martial arts competition.

At UFC 98, however, someone’s “0” has to go, barring a draw or some other freak turn of events.

If Evans wants to retain his title and the lofty position as the UFC’s only undefeated reigning champion, he needs to fight with cautious aggression and get back to his wrestling roots. Evans, like Machida, is a natural counter striker. That poses a problem in a matchup such as this one, because someone has to take the initiative sooner or later.

Granted, both men could refuse to bend, stubbornly sticking to their preference to counter the other’s attack. But that would surely draw the ire of fans spending recession-laced dollars to watch live at the MGM Grand Garden Arena or in their living rooms courtesy of pay-per-view television. That is particularly true after last month’s main event snooze fest between Anderson Silva and Thales Leites.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the onus is on the challenger to come out of his comfort zone and press the action. After all, if the pair opts for little more than to dance an action-free waltz around the Octagon for five rounds, the judges would ostensibly score it a draw, leaving the title in Evans’ hands.

Nevertheless, I don’t see Machida playing the role of aggressor in this fight. He hasn’t fought that way his entire career; he isn’t about to change his style in the biggest fight of his life.

That means Evans will have to shoulder the responsibility of pressing the action if he wants his first title defense to be both an entertaining one for the fans and a statement for the rest of the division. For what it is worth, I think that Evans can make himself an even more difficult puzzle to solve if he opts to fight aggressively, so moving from his comfort zone isn’t nearly as risky for him as it is for Machida.

Evans’ draw with Ortiz is the good illustration of the point. When Evans fought purely as a counter striker, he appeared tentative and allowed Ortiz to score points without much worry. But when the fight was on the line in the third round, Evans became more aggressive and slammed Ortiz to the mat with ease. The final round of that fight made everyone question why Evans hadn’t been more aggressive from the opening bell. Had he chosen to press the action earlier, he may have won a decision, rather than settling for a draw.

Against Machida, Evans knows that he has several advantages, including explosiveness, strength, punching power and wrestling ability. He isn’t likely to outpoint Machida, who is a karate expert, in a hunt-and-peck-type kickboxing match, so he needs to press the action and turn the fight into a brawl so that he can take down the challenger, control him on the ground to score points with the judges and possibly pound him out.

To do that, Evans needs to fight coming forward early behind an active jab. That will cause Machida to throw one or two strikes and circle. If Evans can time it, he should change levels and shoot for a takedown as soon as Machida throws a punch.

Once the fight hits the ground, Machida will first attempt to scramble to his feet during the transition and will then close his guard. Evans should take advantage of Machida’s closed guard by throwing short punches and cutting elbows from the top. He shouldn’t worry about trying to pass the guard. That will open the door for Machida to work back to his feet. Instead, he should stay in the guard, remaining active with punches and elbows to avoid a referee standup and maintain his balance to prevent an escape. Posturing up to really score damaging ground and pound is a luxury, and it opens the door for escapes. Thus, Evans shouldn’t worry about posturing up in search of a ground-and-pound stoppage until after the mid-point of the fight, when he has already started to wear down his foe.

On the feet, Evans needs to remain keenly aware of Machida’s straight left hand. He throws that punch with tremendous speed and force. It is a game-changing strike. Evans can increase the difficulty for Machida if he focuses on his footwork, keeping his lead left foot outside of Machida’s lead right foot. By doing that, he optimizes the throwing lane for his own straight right hand, possibly his most devastating weapon, and also creating an obstacle for Machida’s straight left hand by forcing his foe to throw the shot slightly across his shoulder instead of down the middle.

Evans knows that he has the power to knock out Machida or anyone else. That was obvious in the way he knocked out Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin in his last two bouts. But he needs to avoid relying on that power, because Machida is such a defensive wizard that he may not successfully land a big power shot the entire night. He should instead throw quick, precise punches, letting the power happen naturally. Evans wants to make sure he is ahead on the cards from Jump Street to avoid a come-from-behind effort, which will play right into Machida’s hands.

For Machida, he needs to keep doing all the things that has made him an unsolvable puzzle through the years. Consider this point: Machida isn’t only undefeated in the Octagon, he has never lost a round on the judges’ cards.

He is so tough because he fights from a Karate background, which is extremely unusual for a mixed martial artist. As a result, Machida will not hesitate to throw a wide variety of kicks and other strikes from unusual angles. That makes him difficult enough. When one factors in that the overwhelming majority of his strikes are thrown as lightning-fast counters, it is easy to see why he has been so successful throughout his career.

Machida stands with his shoulders much more perpendicular to his opponent than a traditional mixed martial artist. That allows him to generate tremendous power in his left hand and left kicks because he can utilize a lot of torque through his hips. But it also makes him a difficult target to strike because there isn’t as much body mass squared up as a target.

The Brazilian tactician will approach Evans and throw a lot of very animated feints, firing his shoulders as if he is about to unload a left hand. He does that for two reasons. First, he wants to see how his opponent reacts so that he can plan accordingly for future strikes. Second, and more importantly, he is trying to bait his foe to throw a sloppy strike that he can counter.

He will do the same thing against Evans. The problem, though, is that Evans is a legitimate home run hitter with the most devastating punching power that he has faced to date in the UFC who also is an expert counter striker. Unlike most counter strikers, Evans doesn’t slip and fire back. His bread and butter is firing a counter off an opponent’s tell so that his strike, which comes with incredible speed, lands first. That happens to be the perfect way to counter off of a Machida feint because the return fire isn’t dependent on stepping inside in incoming shot.

Suffice to say, if Machida loses focus for a second during one of those animated feints, Evans may very well land the same shot that he did against Chuck Liddell.

If, by contrast, Machida stays sharp with his feints, he should be able to sidestep Evans’ counter, stepping to his right and firing his left hand down the middle. Evans has a solid set of whiskers, but you only need to review the tape of Machida’s last fight against Thiago Silva or his 2003 knockout win over Rich Franklin (Franklin’s first loss as a professional) at Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye.

Other than that, Machida needs to stay light on his feet and ready to sprawl because he does not want to end up on the ground with Evans. Machida has great Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but someone like Evans isn’t going to be caught in a triangle or an arm bar from the guard on most nights. He is too good for that, unless he gets overly aggressive with his ground-and-pound attack.

If Machida can keep the fight on the feet and frustrate Evans with his counters, it is very likely that he will win on the cards.

At the end of the day, this is a very difficult fight to handicap. It is one that either man can win, if he is able to force the other to play his game.

With that said, I like Evans in this one. Machida’s perfect run has to come to an end at some point. He has yet to face any sort of adversity inside the cage, with the exception of a brief triangle choke attempt by Ortiz in their fight, so it is unknown how he will react with his back up against the wall. Evans faced adversity in the Ortiz fight and was able to survive by salvaging a draw. That bout made him a better fighter. He has survived three split decisions and a majority decision, coming out the winner each time. In other words, he knows how to survive and win when the cards are somewhat stacked against him.