“Welcome to the Machida Era”, were the words uttered by UFC color commentator Joe Rogan as Lyoto Machida turned in one of the most jaw-dropping Octagon performances to dispose of then champion Rashad Evans and capture the UFC light heavyweight title. Machida was the epitome of an unsolved riddle in MMA: a man with an unorthodox yet extremely efficient style who was making his opponents look like rookies by virtually connecting with every single strike and absorbing none. One fight into his title reign however, that all changed. After being made to look human for the first time by Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in a fight many thought “The Dragon” should have lost, Machida fell victim to his compatriot’s power in the rematch… and so ended the Machida era before it ever really began. One year later, a phenom by the name of Jon Jones made headlines with his utter destruction of Rua, the same man who put an abrupt end to Machida’s stint at the top of the division. Armed with otherworldly offense and freakish athleticism, Jones has turned into one of MMA’s legitimate can’t-miss fighters, and he has a serious claim to being the most exciting talent in the sport. This Saturday, arguably the two most talented fighters in the division square off, as Machida bids to reclaim his crown from MMA’s latest “unsolved riddle”, Jon Jones.

Light Heavyweight title fight: Jon Jones (c) vs. Lyoto Machida

Any attempt to analyze Jones’ skill set should be prefaced by the reality that, at such a young age and a relatively early stage in his career, he will keep improving on a fight-to-fight basis, which is quite scary. Whatever flaws Jones might have shown in his game (and there were certainly some), they could well be reduced — if not rectified entirely — come the next fight.

From a technical perspective, Jones’ striking isn’t exactly textbook. At times, his footwork can be iffy. Moreover, he has yet to learn to sit on his punches in order to create maximum power (he has a tendency to overextend), and when pressed, he doesn’t offer much in terms of countering. In fact, in his fight with Quinton Jackson, there was a couple of instances where he resorted to running away. He won’t have that luxury against Machida, as unlike “Rampage”, the Brazilian will not predictably move forward, plant his feet and look to throw the same left hook-right hook combination. Machida’s ability to suddenly leap in and tag his opponents with remarkable accuracy is something Jones and his camp should no doubt have been on the lookout for in their preparation for this bout. The speed and deceptiveness of Machida’s attacks mean Jones can’t afford to implement some of the methods he did against Jackson, especially given that Machida, while at a reach disadvantage, can cover distance much better than “Rampage.”

To Jones’ credit, despite the technical holes in his striking (his kicking technique could still use a lot of polishing, despite its efficiency), he has learned to make the most of his reach seemingly overnight. Against Ryan Bader, Jones’ striking looked somewhat poor. Despite his immense reach advantage, he threw unnecessary techniques that put him in compromising positions (a useless superman elbow could have cost him early). However, five weeks later, he showed a completely different approach against “Shogun” Rua. While he wasn’t exactly pumping his jab and sticking it in Rua’s face, Jones’ kicks gave Rua, as well as his next opponent, Jackson, all sorts of trouble. With his lanky frame, Jones’ kicks allow him to stay even further on the outside, and give his opponents very little opportunities to counter.

This is where Machida’s mastery and impeccable timing will be put to the test. A counter-puncher at heart, Machida feeds on split second windows where his opponent is most vulnerable. With Jones’ reach however, this will be an extremely difficult task. As the champion inevitably kicks Machida’s legs and body, “The Dragon” could well endure a frustrating night with very little openings for counters. As such, the Brazilian needs to be a bit more aggressive than usual. That is not to suggest that he needs to move forward constantly, but he certainly needs to throw with more volume than we’re used to seeing from him, and occasionally be the first to engage. Volume could ultimately prove to be the deciding factor, as if Machida is simply content to sit back and wait for the right moment to counter, Jones will be peppering him with leg kicks which, at the very least, will allow him to get ahead on the judges’ scorecards.

Admittedly, employing a more aggressive approach is easier said than done, in part due to the quality of Jones’ offense and in part due to the fact that Machida has been used to fighting a certain way for so long, and it might be unrealistic to suddenly expect him to change. Timidity is what ultimately cost Machida his fight with Jackson, as it wasn’t until the third round that he finally decided to step in, cut “Rampage” off and counter, as opposed to simply moving away. Finding the right balance between his usual patience and aggression will be key. Ideally, Machida throws some body kicks (from distance, as he wouldn’t want to risk being taken down), throws his usual lead feints, and uses them to leap in with his trademark left cross. If Machida is to win this fight, then a pinpoint leaping left to Jones’ chin is his most likely path to victory.

That being said, Jones’ offense, both on the feet and on the ground, is something Machida has never had to deal with before. In fact, Jones might just be the best offensive fighter in MMA at the moment. Think of the punishment Mauricio Rua was able to withstand from Dan Henderson, then think of what Jones was able to do to him. The equal efficiency that he possesses from distance and close-quarters is quite unique. In fact, on the inside, Jones is even more dangerous. His knees and elbows from the clinch are quite devastating, and his ability to punish his opponent’s body makes him truly stand out from the pack. Be it spinning back elbows from up close, left hooks to the liver, or some brutal knees from the clinch, Jones overwhelms his opponents like very few fighters can.

More worryingly for the champion’s opponents, not only can they get roughed up in the clinch, but they can just as easily find themselves going for a ride. Jones’ unpredictable takedowns on the inside could well be his most effective weapon. Machida is very good in the clinch, possesses an extremely solid base, and he is incredibly tough to take down, but if  anyone is capable of planting him on his back, it’s Jones. In fairness, “Rampage” Jackson did show that Jones’ takedowns aren’t impossible to defend, but he still found himself on the bottom eventually. Machida’s footwork will make it more difficult for Jones to close in on him however, and if Jones is to take him down, he will have to earn it the hard way.

Jones has displayed some versatile wrestling in the past, as he effortlessly took Bader down with a double leg from the outside. However, Machida’s speed and reflexes, coupled with his great takedown defense should make that hard to pull off. Nevertheless, it is difficult to envision Machida managing to stay upright for twenty-five minutes. At some point, Jones’ clinch work will wear on him, and he will find himself on his back. From there, it is vital for Machida to get back to his feet rather quickly. In the past, he’s proven to be difficult to hold down, but having someone like Jones on top is a different proposition altogether.

Jones has the luxury of being able to stay in guard and land some cringe-inducing elbows to the head and body, or show his ever-improving grappling by advancing his position. Ever since the Vladimir Matyushenko fight, Jones has shown some terrific guard passing skills and overall submission grappling ability. This level of diversity is hard to find in MMA. Even harder is finding someone with Jones’ size and frame who can move so fluidly on top. Machida should be wary of getting overzealous in his attempts to regain his feet, as any scrambles will give Jones the opportunity to get a front headlock and transition to a guillotine (or its variations), or take the back and sink his hooks in. Worse yet, If Machida gets stuck on the bottom, his chances of winning the fight will be over, whether it’s due to the referee pulling Jones off or Bruce Buffer reading the judges’ scorecards. Crucially for Machida, he needs to stay clear of being taken down in the middle of the cage, as he will need the fence to wall-walk without giving his opponent many opportunities to get dominant positions in the scrambles.

Machida has a chance in this fight, and it is bigger than that of any other light heavyweight in the world. As long as the fight is on the feet, Machida is the most equipped fighter to make Jones pay for his occasional lazy habits. Furthermore, he possesses the mixture of power and accuracy to outright end Jones’ night with a well-placed counter. However, if Machida has one road to victory, Jones has many, and it is tough to overlook the diversity and flat out brutality of his skill set. “The Dragon” will have his moments, but ultimately, Jones will prove too much as he puts on yet another dominant display on his way to a clear decision victory or late stoppage.

Official Prediction: Jon Jones to defeat Lyoto Machida by Decision