There are three main fundamentals in fighting—distance, timing, and positioning. Each appears stupidly simple at first. Distance is how far away you are, timing is when you do things, and positioning is where each part of your body is. If you do the right things from the right range at the right time, you’ll win the fight. Simple. Well, in theory at least. The three fundamentals can be used to explain everything that happens in a fight, but need to be broken down and put into context to have any value. Each of these broad, overarching concepts can be broken down into smaller, more specific principles such as footwork, rhythm, angles, balance, vision, etc. Through a conceptual understanding of the fundamentals of fighting and their derivatives, it is possible to gain a more thorough understanding of what makes a fighter successful.
Few men in the sport of mixed martial arts better illustrate the importance of fundamentals than Lyoto Machida. He is widely known for his unconventional style; with lowered hands, weird feints, a unique stance, notoriously low output and tons of trickery, he gives every single man he fights a tough time. In this article, we’re going to examine the fundamentals that allow Machida to apply his craft so successfully in the Octagon, specifically in regards to his outstanding take down defense.
The first thing to understand about Machida is his distance. He prefers to keep the fight just at the edge of kicking range. He always wants the opponent to have to step to initiate their offense, but never wants to be too far away to threaten with his legs. Naturally, his opponents are all keen to deny him this distance. To maintain it, he is constantly angling. Machida prefers to circle towards the rear side of his opponents at distance. While contradicting conventional wisdom, circling “into the power” of his opponent is actually the easiest way to keep them out of range. Their rear side is farther away, so by moving towards it and slightly back, he is able to circle past their power. In addition to the distance, this angle is effective because of the position it leaves the opponent in. One of the most difficult ways to move is forward and to the right (assuming orthodox). Neither foot is positioned to push in that direction properly, so fighters will typically follow him by pivoting clockwise on their front foot, which causes them to create even more space for him to continue circling. This is especially effective considering the common tactic of orthodox fighters attempting to step outside his lead foot.
Machida starts every fight circling towards his left as he maintains his distance. It is vital to understand that as he does this, he constantly changes speeds. He will alternate between slow circling and fast circling, occasionally pausing to lower his stance and feint. He never moves at full speed until the opponent commits, at which point he’s always ready to get out of the way:
Not only does he change speeds, he changes directions:
At first, Machida steps slowly towards his left. When Tito takes a big step outside to his right, Machida makes a short, fast hop to his left. Ortiz, like Bader in the previous examples, has had this happen to him several times by this point. Anticipating Machida’s escape, he tries to cut across to the left. However, as soon as he does, Machida changes directions and circles past him to the other side, regaining the center of the cage. His footwork isn’t perfect on a technical level—he squares up and remains too upright—but the application is extremely effective because he times it perfectly and moves at the proper angles to maintain his distance. In fact, he does this so well that he can even make his opponents miss their shots completely.
After walking into several left hands while trying to walk Machida down, Ortiz decides to adapt by shooting under Machida’s left straight. He aims for the rear leg, which he expects to come forward as Machida punches. A quick pivot in the opposite direction that Ortiz is expecting causes him to miss badly, barely even brushing that back leg as he shoots past Machida. It’s the exact same perfectly-timed direction change that he used before. As will be seen throughout this article, Machida uses the same angles to defend take downs that he does to defend strikes.
As good as Machida’s footwork is, that alone isn’t enough to keep a determined opponent off of him. Every self-respecting pressure fighter knows how to advance with small steps, cut off the cage and move in on angles. To keep that kind of fighter at distance, he needs to establish threats in combination with his footwork—something he has become more adept at very recently.
As Mousasi walks him down, Machida circles to his left near the cage and slows down. Throughout the fight, he has been slowing down only to hop left quickly and get away in that same direction. This time when he settles, Mousasi is prepared to step off to his own right and intercept Machida. However, Machida cuts to his right (Mousasi’s left) instead, pivoting with a check hook that forces Mousasi to duck and abandon his offense.
Again, Machida circles towards his left near the fence. As soon as he senses a slight overstep by Mousasi, he times a sharp right jab over the jab Mousasi is attempting. Mousasi misses his punch and walks past Machida. Seconds later, Machida walks him into a similar trap but this time throws a quick 1-2. When the left straight misses, Machida frames his forearm along Mousasi’s head to create space as he pivots outside. In each sequence, a sudden change of directions timed as Mousasi steps to cut him off allows Machida to take an angle while forcing Mousasi to defend.
In addition to his improved boxing, one of Machida’s signature techniques is especially effective at punishing opponents who attempt to stand too close to him:
Tito stands too close for comfort. With just a tiny step forward, he will be close enough to grab Machida. He has been able to easily outmaneuver Tito the entire time, but this is still not his ideal distance. Knowing that Tito is still looking to close distance any chance he gets, Machida just barely extends his left hand. A strike from Machida’s rear side means that his hips will be square and his feet planted for a brief moment. This is the opportunity Tito needs to get inside. He raises his guard, shifts his weight forward and steps in to meet Machida—only to spear himself on a devastating knee to the liver. Ever defensively responsible, Machida angles out immediately.
With these tactics, Machida forces his opponents to stand a step farther back than they should. From that distance, they will either try to kick him, try to blitz him, or hesitate. All three options are good for Machida. He’s well-known for countering people who come forward recklessly:
If they’re smart enough not to walk right into his punches, then he gets to work with his kicks. Machida has a unique style of kicking. Almost all of his kicks are thrown with more of an upward trajectory than is typically seen. He does throw a ton of front kicks, but even his round kicks usually angle up more than they cut across. Instead of rising up on the ball of the foot, he keeps his heels down and only lifts them for a split second if he needs to pivot. These things cost him some power, but he gains speed, balance and accuracy which, when combined with his tricky set ups and masterful timing, make him a deadly kicker.
Like many great southpaw kickers, he takes advantage of the tough angle that his rear kicks can come from. Mixing his kicks up high and low, throwing front and round kicks, setting them up with his straight left and feinting liberally, he makes it very difficult for his opponents to read his attacks correctly. Especially when he starts mixing in eye feints:
Machida looks low then kicks high.
What really needs to be appreciated about Machida’s kicks is his timing. He doesn’t just try to blast his opponents, he tries to sneak his leg in through the smallest openings. His knockout of Dollaway is a perfect example. Dollaway spent the entire fight trying to circle away from Machida’s left side, hoping to negate that kick. As he circled, he kept his right hand high and was constantly pawing with his left. Every time his left hand came out, he made sure his right was up in position to block or parry. It took Machida about a minute of fighting to pick up on the rhythm of his steps and find the timing for his kick. He exploded at the perfect moment:
At the exact moment that Dollaway extends his lead arm, Machida begins his kick. Look at Dollaway’s back foot. Machida times this just as Dollaway is pivoting, but has stepped outside Dollaway’s lead to cut him off. This means that Dollaway is not circling away from the power, he’s just turning in place while remaining in the arc of the kick. If he had planted while Dollaway’s lead foot was in motion, Dollaway might have been able to step out far enough to take some heat off the kick. Finally, notice the extended lead hand of Machida. This draws out the right arm of Dollaway, who turns his palm forward to catch the punch that isn’t coming. His defense with his right hand actually removes his right elbow from his torso, which gives Machida just enough space to kick up into his ribs and take him out.
Notice the sharp upward angle, and how the planted heel leaves him balanced enough to kick his foot free when Dollaway scoops it.
Even opponents who don’t get taken out by his kicks can still find themselves in trouble. One of Machida’s most dangerous attacks is a rear straight off his rear body kick:
Rashad lifts his lead leg and turns it inside to check while reaching wildly with his arms. He clearly wasn’t prepared to defend the kick, but still managed to take it on the arms. However, left immobile and off balance, he eats a sharp straight that puts him on his ass. Machida lands this punch against almost everyone he fights. It allows him to close distance unexpectedly while occupying the guard of the opponent and ensuring that their head remains in the center.
Now, in an article that’s supposed to be about his TDD, we’ve spent almost no time talking about his TDD. That’s because, just like I explained in my breakdown of Jose Aldo, Machida’s incredible anti-wrestling is impossible to separate from his striking. The two elements of his game are so fluidly blended that one cannot be understood fully without the other. The elements of his striking that we’ve discussed enable his wrestling defense—specifically his angles, his distance and his balance.
Machida’s approach to TDD is extremely simple. He gets hit hips back, pivots hard and digs for an underhook, forcing the opponent to attempt a clinch then pushing them off:
Tito rushes forward. Machida changes levels and drops his hips back, underhooks with his right arm and pivots to his right. By getting out of the path of Tito’s momentum, Machida is able to easily disengage. It’s simple, it’s basic, and it’s extraordinarily effective. Machida’s opponents will almost never get a hold of his legs. By controlling distance so effectively, he forces his opponents to initiate their grappling from too far away. This gives him plenty of time to react, get low and kill shots before they become threatening by turning out of the way. You’ll almost never see Machida perform a full sprawl because you’ll almost never see someone come anywhere close to controlling his hips. His method of defense allows him to keep the fight standing and return to distance as quickly as possible—notice that he throws Tito into the cage and circles back to the center.
This approach is especially effective because Machida is strong and skilled in the clinch. He forces opponents to engage him there instead of allowing them to attack his lower body. Despite his reputation as a striker, Machida is actually quite capable of taking his opponents down from the clinch.
Using his underhook to off balance Hendo and force his weight onto his right leg, Machida suddenly wrenches Hendo towards that side while sweeping the foot. Notice his left foot—he kicks low on Hendo’s leg and hooks with his instep to maximize his leverage and ability to lift the leg out of position. Turning and falling to that side as he does so, he takes Hendo off his feet.
From kicking distance, Machida snaps out a front kick. Tito tries to follow the kick back, but as he comes in Machida changes levels and quickly pummels for underhooks on both sides. As soon as he does, he clasps his hands and starts driving Tito back and to his right (Tito’s left). Tito steps back with his left leg for balance and attempts to whizzer with his right arm, but Machida manages to step his left leg behind Tito’s right as he changes directions. He uses his left arm to pull and right arm to lift, dragging Tito to the ground as he blocks Tito’s leg with his knee.
However, it isn’t always possible for him to get the underhooks. When an opponent times their shot particularly well, he may be forced to vary his defense slightly.
Davis extends his lead hand and his head comes slightly forward. Machida sees the opening, and times it with a quick left straight. Davis reacts well and slips it, then ducks under the followup right hand. As he changes levels under the punches, he reaches out and gets a loose grip on each of Machida’s legs. Machida immediately begins turning, preventing Davis from controlling his rear leg. As he pivots, he quickly overhooks with his right arm and uses that overhook to lift Davis’ left arm off his leg. Simultaneously, he frames with his left arm across Davis’ neck and chest, forcing Davis’ head away from his ribs. Davis gives up on the double and throws an uppercut. Despite good timing by Davis, Machida is able to adjust quickly to kill his positioning for the shot before it ever becomes truly threatening. His excellent footwork is the key to this.
The most amazing thing about Machida’s defense is that he can initiate it at any time. He’s always balanced enough to defend, even when kicking.
Backed against the cage, Machida leads with a left kick to the body. Weidman attempts a basic block and scoop counter, where the goal is to block the kick with the right arm while reaching to scoop it across your body with the left arm. The kick slips underneath his elbow, but he still manages to perform the scooping parry. Machida, maintains excellent balance even as his leg as dragged across his body, just like he did when Dollaway attempted the same defense. Weidman doesn’t go down though. He switches grips, passing the leg to his right hand. He essentially attempts to double off a head outside single, but as his left hand is going for the right leg of Machida, Machida underhooks with his right arm then turns to kill the double. Weidman still has the left leg though and a strong angle, and he reaches deep enough to get the crook of his elbow around the back of Machida’s knee. He clasps his hands together despite the underhook and attempts to turn the corner in an effort to come up into a single and salvage his shot. Machida finally manages to square his hips and take away the angle, which allows him to crossface Weidman and break that grip. Weidman is forced to abandon his shot and stands up with his back now pinned against the cage.
That entire sequence is an incredible display of skill from both men. It was one of my favorite moments from what proved to be an amazing title fight. It isn’t even my favorite example of Machida’s TDD though. This is:
Machida springs in with his signature leaping knee. Davis times it well and gets his arms nearly locked around Machida’s legs. As usual, Machida immediately pivots hard. With that pivot, he gets his left leg back just far enough to create space for his left arm to pummel in and underhook. As he is doing this, Davis is already adjusting for his pivot. Davis steps his left leg outside Machida’s right, attempting an outside trip (which he used to get Machida down in the first round previously). He doesn’t have the right grips for it though, and Machida uses his underhook to change directions and muscle Davis around, instead of being forced back over his trapped leg. He throws Davis down to his knees, uses his forearms to maintain space as he keeps his hips back, then misses a knee as Davis returns to his feet and backs off.
Even when basically giving his hips on a silver platter, Machida is able to transition fluidly into his defense and remain standing. His control of distance and timing make it almost impossible to get a good shot on him in the first place, and his outstanding ability to change angles, strong clinch work and exceptional balance make him extremely difficult to take down even when his opponents have a great entry because of how easily he disrupts their positioning. Machida truly illustrates the importance of fundamentals for anyone trying to develop a complete mixed martial arts game.