Lyoto Machida is a gentleman. Always respectful, always the embodiment of class in a sport where the object is to mangle the opponent until he either gets knocked out, gives up, the referee stops it or three people decide on who mauled the other person more.
Chael Sonnen, never more than one sentence away from delivering a memorable audio missile, likes and respects Machida.
Machida and Sonnen, both veterans of mixed martial arts now in their 40s, showed those characteristics as the marquee attractions at Tuesday’s news conference in Manhattan to promote Bellator’s return to Madison Square Garden on June 14.
“I just want to compete. I wouldn’t manufacture any conflict with Machida,” Sonnen said. “I’ve known him for a number of years. Very, very gentlemanly to me. But he does have a history with my teammates. He beat Dan Henderson and he knocked out Randy Couture’s tooth. Maybe that doesn’t upset Randy, but it upsets me.”
Sonnen and Machida will face each other in a light heavyweight main event at Bellator 222 at MSG this summer. Other announced fights on the card include Neiman Gracie facing the Rory MacDonald-Jon Fitch winner in the semifinals of the Bellator welterweight grand prix tournament, Dillon Danis vs. Max Humphrey, and Heather Hardy against a to-be-announced opponent. MacDonald, the reigning welterweight champion, will face Fitch on April 27 in San Jose.
Sonnen said that he and Machida were, for one night, scheduled to fight each other years ago in the UFC. It was called off the next day, Sonnen said. “I remember it being a stressful night,” Sonnen said. “I remember thinking, ‘Good, I’m glad that fight’s off.’ That’s not what I said publicly, but I was thinking it.”
The thought of now having to face Machida, a karate-based fighter with one of the styles unique to MMA in its first 25 years, hasn’t lessened Sonnen’s stress levels.
“It drives me nuts. I’ve seen all his fights. Nobody wants to fight wrestlers, you just fight them when you have to. He’s like the wrestler killer,” Sonnen said of Machida. “I watched him 20 times. I stayed up until 3 in the morning watching him last night. I cannot figure out why nobody can close that distance and get their hands on him. It’s a hard one. He moves constantly. You step in, he steps back. You can never close that distance. Nobody can. I watched Jon Jones fail for nine minutes at it.”
Jones eventually figured it out and submitted Machida at UFC 140 in his second light heavyweight title defense in 2011. Others have solved the Machida puzzle as well. After starting his career 16-0 and winning the UFC light heavyweight title, Machida has gone 9-8. This is his second fight since joining Bellator in 2018. He beat Rafael Carvalho by split decision in a middleweight bout last December at Bellator 213 in Hawaii.
“Chael is so smart. He give me a lot of compliments as part of his strategy now. He can make me fool myself and I can relax too much and he’ll take advantage of everything. I have to be careful.”
Sonnen (30-16-1) said there is no one in his gym who can mimic what Machida does. Of course, few gyms have someone with Machida’s skill set, from the karate stance to the constant movement to the kicks to his blitzes.
“You really just have one crack to figure this guy out,” Sonnen said, “and it’s live on TV with your shirts off.”
This will be Bellator’s second fight card at the Garden and third in the area. The Garden hosted Bellator 180 in June 2017 and NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum hosted Bellator 208 last October. The president of Bellator Scott Coker said he’d like to bring an event to the city once a year or once every 18 months.
“It’s really based on us putting the big fights together,” Coker said. “We want to make sure we bring a quality event to New York City. You have to bring your best game.”