Derek Brunson and Lyoto Machida are two fighters made for each other.
Screen capture via YouTube
If you have a friend who loves boxing but can't get into MMA, don't show him or her Derek Brunson. Brunson's boxing form is part comedy and part tragedy. He knocks a lot of guys out, but he exposes himself constantly in the process. Every time Brunson steps in to punch he tilts his head back and runs in with his shoulders about two feet forward of his hips. Brunson's gnome-like tuft of beard serves to exaggerate his comically projected chin. And the most embarrassing thing of all is that a lot of the time it works.
It is quite common in mixed martial arts for a grappler to suddenly start knocking opponents out and be touted as a much improved striker, but the secret is usually that they have learned the value of getting on offense and staying on offense. Fabricio Werdum is a perfect example—his game is largely pumping one-twos with low hands, but by driving a high pace in the fragile heavyweight division he can overwhelm the vast majority of opponents. Brunson made a similar discovery, and nowhere was this clearer than when he stuck to Sam Alvey like white on rice.
Brunson was able to continue in this fashion, succeeding in spite of his dangerous faults, until he met Robert Whittaker. Whittaker's excellent control of distance and ability to stop Brunson's takedowns allowed him to survive the early surge without being overwhelmed.
After a couple of attempts, Brunson's game plan looked astoundingly one-note, and Whittaker started scoring with counter-strikes. When Brunson dashed in, reaching out ahead of him for Whittaker's hips, the latter cross-faced him and dropped a right hand which sent Brunson into the splits. Brunson was knocked out with a high kick shortly afterward and his march toward the middleweight title came to a halt.
Defeat is fine, but the manner in which it happened was embarrassing. Even the casual observer could see that Brunson's striking was all over the place. When Brunson was matched against Anderson Silva, a savvy counter-striker, he veered wildly between caution bordering on timidity and diving after Silva's hips from five feet out. Silva was lucky to win the decision, but the fight was so dull that no one really complained. The one standout moment was when Brunson's chin-up, face-first lunges saw him almost knock himself out on Silva's shoulder, a rare thing to see.
Even when Brunson got back in the win column by knocking out Dan Kelly, he did so by lunging in, face first and eyes closed. All of this makes his match with the returning Lyoto Machida much more intriguing.
Machida has suffered some embarrassment of his own lately. This fight is Machida's return from a lengthy suspension for taking a banned substance. However, Machida retains goodwill from many fans as the substance, 7-keto-DHEA, is available over the counter and should probably be on the list of "specified substances," which carry a lesser punishment. Bloody Elbow's Iain Kidd, who works extensively on anything related to USADA and UFC, pointed out that:
"If Lyoto had taken clomiphene, which could double his testosterone levels, he would be facing a 12-month suspension at most. Instead, he took 7-keto-DHEA—which even the most positive studies show to be at best a mild fat burner —and faced a 24-month suspension."
On top of that, Machida wasn't caught taking a banned substance—he freely admitted it to USADA after he had taken it. And when you consider that some fighters can get off with lighter sentences for more serious transgressions under the old "tainted supplement" deal, and then come back to test positive for a Cold War era steroid a few months later, it's easy to see why fans aren't overly concerned with Machida's slip-up.
As a fighter, Machida has always been at his best when the pace is slow and his opponent is easy to frustrate. Fighting at an exaggerated range, he tries to encourage opponents to take that "extra step." He'll retreat each time they look to step in on him, and when they're really over-committing, expecting him to give ground, he will step in to meet them with a stiff reverse punch. Ryan Bader proved the perfect mark for this, giving Machida plenty of time to pick shots on the outside at a nice, slow pace, then losing his cool and bum rushing himself onto a counter.
When Machida is allowed to fight his fight, he can come as close to a perfect performance as you will see. Against Thiago Silva and Rashad Evans, Machida went almost completely untouched and knocked his opponents down on any serious strike he landed. Against Mark Munoz, he needed just three kicks to set up the knockout, and against C.B. Dollaway it took just one.
But the "Machida Riddle" hasn't been much of a riddle for the last few years—the cream of the crop have found the flaws in his game. Against Luke Rockhold, Machida's flappy hands on the lead got him dropped with a counter-hook, and on the mat he could not escape Rockhold's crushing top game. Yoel Romero loves to take most of the round off and then explode in short bursts of overwhelming offense, and Machida's laid-back style simply played into that.
More important, even B-tier fighters can frustrate Machida by refusing to be drawn out into wild rushes.
For Brunson, the bum rush could work. There is nothing to say that it couldn't. But running in, chin first, against a guy who has spent his whole career inviting opponents to do just that and then intercepting them seems like a very hard and risky way to earn your paycheck. It would also mean repeating the same mistakes that got Brunson into trouble twice already.
It would be good to see Brunson approach this match in a more measured fashion. Machida is a good ring general but the fence is still a problem for him. If Brunson can move him toward it with feints and pressure, the shots for Machida's hips will be easier to take—as opposed to those clumsy dives he made at Whittaker and Silva. Machida is willing to give ground whenever he even whiffs an attack, so feinting him toward the fence doesn't take a high-level striker.
Brunson's swinging out of the clinch against Anderson Silva was rather effective and it could be a good way to get off some free offense on Machida. Machida's first line of defense against takedowns and strikes is his footwork. Placing him on the fence removes that and forces him to fight off takedown attempts with his hands and hips. When those are occupied Brunson has a great chance of cracking Machida clean if he comes up swinging.
Low kicks have always been effective against Machida, but again the issue is getting close enough to land them without telegraphing them and eating that reverse punch straight up the center. Feints and pressure will again be very useful here, but Mauricio "Shogun" Rua had his success by flurrying with his hands and running into the low kicks as Machida retreated. Shogun's hands were never going to hit Machida clean, but they forced the retreat and the last thing leaving kicking range was Machida's trailing leg.
For Machida, Brunson seems like the perfect opponent. Normally, Machida has to wait a round or two before his opponent gets frustrated and reckless. Brunson offers that right from the opening bell. If Brunson surprises and moves forward safely, with the aforementioned feints and pressure, Machida might well look to score with the intercepting knee which has taken the wind out of so many of his opponents. What is neat about the intercepting knee is that while it does take the fighter into the clinch afterward, it allows Machida to score a strike and enter the clinch on his terms rather than by being pushed to the fence or shot in on.
One point to note is that Brunson is a southpaw. Machida, like many in points-style karate, fights off both stances. Often he will switch to be in open guard—a mirror image of his opponent, orthodox vs. southpaw. Machida's best weapons have been his left round kick, his left straight, and his left knee, all out of a southpaw stance. When he switches to orthodox he is usually a little less comfortable. Staying southpaw against Brunson will result in a closed guard matchup, where Machida's rear-handed counterpunches often make him a bit more susceptible to being clipped on the follow-up. The counterpunches against Ryan Bader and Rashad Evans make a great contrast—in an open guard position Machida can always "lean out the window" past his opponent's lead shoulder to limit his ability to hit him.
From a closed guard, Machida's dropping of his rear hand makes him just as vulnerable to his opponent's rear hand. Jon Jones' superman hook demonstrated that nicely.
Ultimately this should be a passing of the torch fight. Derek Brunson is a strong up-and-comer who needs to work out the kinks of his game. Lyoto Machida is a man who seems to have already had his last hurrah in his first run at the middleweight title. Machida is 40 years old and the limitations of his game are better understood by his opponents now than when he was running through the light heavyweight division as a complete mystery. The question is whether Brunson can convince Machida to pass the torch or the Brazilian karateka reinserts himself into the top end of the middleweight division with a victory here.
Pick up Jack's book, Notorious: The Life and Fights of Conor McGregor.