Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre have substantiated their supremacy by laying waste to their respective divisions. Every fight promotion wants marketable and dominant champions, but one drawback is the challenge of finding fresh contenders to pique the fan's interest.
There's been quite a shake up at 185-pounds lately. Chael Sonnen is off the immediate radar, perennial contender Nate Marquardt has dropped to welterweight, the champ just dispatched Vitor Belfort, Brian Stann likely booted Jorge Santiago out of the top-ten, Alan Belcher is recovering from his eye injury, and even though they're great fighters, Wanderlei Silva, Chris Leben, and Michael Bisping don't seem quite ready for "The Spider".
Maia, of course, already had one shot back at UFC 112 in a bout where he barely even got his hands on the champ, who skated out of reach and taunted the challenger angrily to the tune of antagonized booing. Even the boss called the fight "a disgrace", which is never good, and no one really determined why Silva was so offended.
Regardless, Maia vs. Silva was so extraordinarily unique that it's hard to imagine it repeating the same way, and Maia has steadily rounded out the rougher edges enough to make a rematch interesting.
Boasting some of the most ludicrous sport grappling credentials known to MMA, Maia might deserves credit for quickly and efficiently acclimating his skill to full contact fighting. Drawing upon his practice of Judo and Karate at a young age, the Brazilian has constructed a deceivingly mean clinch game and polished up his kickboxing under the tutelage of the great Wanderlei Silva. After sixteen professional bouts, Maia has only been out-tangoed by Silva and blasted by Marquardt.
Mark Munoz anchors his MMA foundation with some pretty astounding wrestling achievements. "The Filipino Wrecking Machine" was a NCAA D1 national champion and two-time All American. In 2007, Munoz started strong as a light-heavyweight by taking and winning one fight per month to attract the WEC's attention.
After two first-round TKOs in the promotion, Munoz leapfrogged into the UFC and the elite echelon against Matt Hamill, where he lost by head-kick KO at UFC 96. Even though Munoz had wrestled at 197-pounds in college, he was successful in making the 185-pound limit, which flowered new dimensions.
He became leaner, meaner, and quicker, but maintained the same explosive wrestling. Three middleweights fell in his wake, the last being a prominent name in TUF 8 winner Kendall Grove. The current number one contender would be the next to collide with Munoz, and though Yushin Okami eked out a split-decision to advance up the ladder, it was a respectable performance that proved Munoz was on the level.
A distinctive facet of fight prep for Mark Munoz is the company he keeps. He spends time venturing to two of the better camps in the game, Rafael Cordeiro's Kings MMA and Team Nogueira's Black House squad. But of significant note is that within his own headquarters at the Reign Training Center, Munoz has been rolling with Marcel Louzado, a three-time BJJ world champion who once defeated Maia in a grappling competition.
Both Maia and Munoz carry two-tilt streaks into UFC 131: Maia executed intelligent strategies in decision wins over Grove and Mario Miranda, and Munoz scored a unanimous decision over Aaron Simpson and thwacked C.B. Dollaway with a monster right hand for the TKO.
The phase-by-phase breakdown of Maia vs. Munoz awaits after the jump.
Free Movement / Striking Phase
There's no question that Demian Maia's striking was pretty ugly when he first started. I don't necessarily see him publishing any kickboxing instructionals in the near future, but his stand up is not the gaping flaw it once was.
After getting clipped by clever veteran Nate Marquardt, Maia adamantly enthused his striking at Team Wand, and the results were immediately apparent. Maia's very next appearance was against Dan Miller, a tough as nails competitor in every aspect of combat, who he coolly out-pointed on the feet for most of the fight.
Those eyeballing Maia's improvements were able to perceive how truly incredible it was for one of the best submissionists in the solar system to beat a reputable gamer like Miller in a striking match.
Nowadays, Maia has a startling grasp of kickboxing fundamentals, especially the subtle details like footwork and head movement. As shown above, his one-two is clean and laser-straight, he circles out to his right and sweeps with a beautiful counter, and he keeps his chin down and his head a moving target.
Keeping his boxing pretty simple with basic strikes and combinations, Munoz packs an enormous wallop into his right hand. As depicted versus Dollaway, the smoldering right hand is the main cannon on the "Filipino Wrecking Machine".
Taking an approach similar to Dan Henderson, when Munoz slowly menaces forward, he maintains a solid guard and measures his pace for either a cleaving right hand or a powerful double leg. This causes a bit of uncertainty for his opponent's choice of defense: the hands often drop to defend the takedown, offering an opening for punches, or the guard raises to block the punches, making a level-drop harder to react to.
Playing off these two attacks, Munoz also likes to blast an uppercut straight up the middle. Conversely, his typically straight-forward attack often leaves him vulnerable to the same strike, as Kendall Grove patterned.
I think, standing, Demian Maia has the better overall technique in more areas. But from the standpoint of both scoring and effectiveness, the timing and power of Munoz will be more of a factor.
Maia might also have better defense and could accumulate a higher landing percentage, but Munoz probably has the more resilient beard, and the strikes he lands have the better chance of standing out in the eyes of the judges, or ending the fight outright.
It's no secret that Team Quest's Chael Sonnen is an all around beast in strength, wrestling, and takedowns, so I was fairly impressed when Maia pulled off the sugary sweet trip to the right.
But when Sonnen proceeded to ruthlessly flatten Dan Miller, Yushin Okami, Nate Marquardt, and even Anderson Silva with unstoppable consistency, Maia's handling of the brute became ten times more impressive in retrospect.
I also expected South American wrestling champion, four-time Brazilian wrestling champion, and BJJ black belt Mario Miranda to give Maia much more trouble, especially with his sharper hands, but that was not the case.
Maia has a rather unorthodox blend of Judo, wrestling, and application of Jiu Jitsu leverage and positioning to make his clinch dangerously complex, and highly under-rated. His tie-up game is similar to Aoki's; with a sneaky bag of tricks that derives from a wide range of sciences, making it very difficult to predict and defend.
Munoz's clinch is still formidable, but more traditionally flavored. His destructive punching power is a threat everywhere, so that and his strength and wrestling background make him tough to manipulate.
I'm fascinated to see how their clinching interactions play out. With Maia's intense grappling, Munoz has to be extremely selective as to where and how he pursues takedowns. We've seen Maia set up a sweep as he was being taken down, and execute it shortly after he's on his back. The strategy of Munoz will affect this, as he may look to stay untangled and just thrash Maia with strikes, but all things considered ...
Advantage: Maia (slight)
In this category, I've often lead with a disclaimer explaining how the guard player will usually be at a disadvantage when facing a strong takedown artist. The color of a BJJ belt means next to nothing in MMA nowadays. Yesterday's black belt is today's multiple-time world champion, and even they still need to tailor their game to the intricacies of the sport.
It's pretty hard to argue with Eddie Bravo's point, who cites Roger Gracie's quote that "80 percent of BJJ doesn't work in MMA" to support this perspective.
That being said, Demian Maia is the exception to the rule.
Maia is not flailing around looking for a gi to tug on or struggling to defend strikes or hit sweeps because of the different atmosphere. He's acclimated his exquisite technique directly from the mat with the gi to the cage without it.
He has murderous back control, an unparalleled library of sweeps and passes, and undoubtedly one of the most esteemed grappling repertoires to grace MMA.
Munoz is no slouch on the ground either, but in a different way, so he'll have to use his BJJ knowledge defensively. In any and every area of the fight, he should be threatening to remove Maia's head with his right hand. Of course, there's a fine line to walk there, because over-committing on strikes will bury himself into Maia's labyrinth of submissions.
If possible, using his strength and takedown ability to score points, then pelting some ground-and-pound and escaping without letting Maia settle in would be the ideal gameplan in all ground encounters.
His self-coined "Donkey Kong Punches" -- if unleashed in the right spots -- could easily be the equalizer for Maia's vast arsenal.
Dictation of control and pace will be imperative.
Typically, in the clinch and on the ground, Maia is a thief of momentum with tyrannical control. Munoz must alternate his attack back and forth from punching, to shooting, to clinching, and escaping; in the most cryptic and off-tempo rhythms he can capably muster.
The farther you are within Demian Maia's grasp, the closer to the finish line he is, so a cautiously vacillating offense could disrupt his overbearing characteristics.
This will be a huge test for both fighters. Maia's areas in question are his striking, chin, and wrestling; with Munoz, his level of technicality and strategy. Each will use their strengths to spearhead the weakness of the other.
I'm intrigued to see what type of strategy Munoz develops: whether he'll try to completely avoid contact and force Maia to trade, or dive in and use his wrestling offensively, or what I think is the best approach, which is to remain ultra-defensive and attack in calculated but lethal spurts.
The bettors have this fight about even, which is a bit of a surprise to me. I think Maia's faced and beaten the better middleweights, as Simpson and Dollaway are both noteworthy, but favorable match-ups for Munoz. It should be a lot easier for Maia to work his game, while Munoz's stand up has improved by degrees, but I don't know if he's up to par for a pure sprawl-and-brawl routine. Even if he is, I think Maia can tie him up while planting his feet and adhere himself to force a grappling match and work his magic.
My Prediction: Maia by submission
Gifs via Zombie Prophet of IronForgesIron.com
Maia-Sonnen and Grove-Munoz gifs from MMA-Core.com