LOS ANGELES -- By all accounts, even that of the pleasant man translating for Mauricio Rua during Wednesday's UFC on FOX open workouts, the last time the great Brazilian light heavyweight fought, it was downright brutal.
Rua's unforgettable contest against Dan Henderson, which Rua lost unanimously after five incredible rounds, has already drawn distant in the rearview mirror. Yet the carnage (i.e., one of the best tilts in UFC history) continued to linger with the former No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter like few bouts have.
Of course there had to be a toll after a fight like the one Rua (20-6) shared with Henderson. The 30-year-old Brazilian didn't break anything, went through his typical two- to three-week rest and claimed to feel fine. Still, he admitted, the "mental recovery took a little bit longer."
Four days away from fighting at Staples Center for the first time since Lyoto Machida won his controversial decision at UFC 104, Rua says he's prepared to step into a cage again. Saturday's contest against Brandon Vera, the main event of a four-fight bill on FOX (8 p.m. ET), is Rua's 28th over almost a full decade since he turned pro. At stake, potentially, is a shot at the UFC light heavyweight title.
When UFC president Dana White first announced that Rua-Vera would be a title eliminator, fans revolted. Perhaps there was an argument to be made for Rua. He'd been the champion before, losing the belt to Jones. But no one could come up with justification for Vera. Once "cocky," now "confident," Vera (12-5; only 4-5 with one no contest since 2007) was gifted with a title opportunity out of nowhere. At the age of 34, the chance comes as he "finally grew up."
"I've always been a Toys 'R' Us kid," the lanky fighter said with a smile.
There have never been questions about Rua's heart, and the Henderson contest ensured there never will be. By Vera's own admission, however, he hasn't cared much the past two years. Vera can be tough to figure out. He doesn't show his hand. So it's hard to say with conviction if his newfound seriousness is real or not.
That's among the reasons why Rua is as close to a unanimous choice among fans and pundits as he can be.
Having transplanted himself from the rainforest surrounding Belem, Brazil, to the sprawling concrete jungle that is L.A., Lyoto Machida is in the midst of a major move as he gears up for his first fight since Jon Jones made him go to sleep in December.
"I think sometimes you have to change your life," said Machida, who recently purchased a home in the City of Angels. "This is my time to change. All the time I was with my family. With my father and brothers. But now I have to make my own decisions. I have to make my life different with my kids, with my wife. I know my father always supports me. My brothers [as well]. But I take this like a challenge. To move here, by myself, nobody help me, just my friends here."
A glance at Machida's entourage on Wednesday suggests not much is different. Flanked by his father, Yoshizo, and Lyoto's brothers, Machida still walked and talked like a karateka. This is important because karate is where he began and where he holds most of his advantages, including over Saturday’s foe, Ryan Bader.
Machida said several times that for as much as the move to North America heralds a new beginning and a chance to be his own man, he is also focused on returning to his roots.
Those seem like disparate ambitions, but Machida did not think so.
"I come back for my roots in the martial arts," he said, "but I got out of my comfort zone."
After a 16-0 start, including a title-winning performance against Rashad Evans, Machida lost three of four. Moving to the U.S. will help Machida with his English, which is already conversationally functional. And residing in Los Angeles, an epicenter of mixed martial arts training, he'll have an excellent camp to work with at Black House.
Yoshizo Machida explained that those are all good reasons for the move -- even though he'll miss his son and would prefer if he remained close to home.
"He's always been very family oriented, but this is an important step in Lyoto's life, to build his family as his core family," Yoshizo said. "I've never prohibited him from doing anything. Who am I to say that? I left my country [Japan] when I was 19 years old and went to Brazil. So if this is the path he needs to take, I support him."
Winning impressively over Bader could put Machida (17-3) in position to fight for the light heavyweight title. But unlike Rua in the evening’s capper, Machida, who sees Bader as nothing special, isn’t close to a sure thing, leaving open the distinct possibility that the next chapter of his life could begin under adversity.
In his last fight, Bader (14-2) faced an immobile Quinton Jackson and won. The 29-year-old American is, in fact, a big, physical wrestler who honed his striking over the last year with new boxing coaches. He’s not as stiff anymore. Power is coming with less effort. And he flows much better than he once did. Machida resides on the other end of the movement scale from Jackson, which is why Bader took precaution by bringing in a quick karate stylist to emulate the Brazilian.
“The first couple rounds you’re like, OK, this is different,” Bader said. “You drill and then go in there and spar again, and it gets better and better.”
Jamie Varner has seen enough in MMA to come to the conclusion that fighting like he has nothing to lose is the only way to go.
That’s the attitude he carried into the cage against Edson Barboza, when on just a few weeks' notice he pulled off one of the most surprising upsets of the year. Varner, 27, isn’t sneaking up on Joe Lauzon, Saturday’s foe in L.A., but he’s still operating as if he hasn’t a care in the world.
Why? Because when he did, when winning was the only thing that mattered, when perfection was still something that seemed worth striving for, he failed and handled it like a baby.
Flipping the script, fighting and forgetting the rest, Varner (20-6-1) cashed in against Barboza. He’s aiming to do it again.
“That’s why I took this fight on short notice, too,” Varner said. “I have nothing to lose. I go out and lose to a guy like Joe Lauzon, I should lose to Joe Lauzon. I lost last September in a regional show that no one has ever heard of. I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be fighting on FOX. I shouldn’t have beat Edson Barboza. But I’m here to open some eyes and inspire people. This is my modern day Rocky story. This is how I’m going to build my legacy.”
Fighters with legacies have plenty to lose, so Varner sounds as if he's getting ahead of himself. But the former WEC lightweight champion promises that no matter what the stakes are from this point forward, he’ll operate as if there are none.