Demian Maia is one of the premier Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu technicians in Mixed Martial Arts today.
Competing under the Alliance Jiu-Jitsu banner Maia won IBJJF World Championships as a purple and brown belt and then on the CBJJO World Cup circuit won black belt championships in 2002, 2003 and 2005. But it is his success at the Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Grappling Championships that represents the height of his grappling career. In 2005 he took silver and in 2007 Maia won gold at ADCCs, the most difficult no gi competition in the world.
While having dabbled in Mixed Martial Arts before Maia fully committed to sport in late 2005. There is no question that Maia is one of the best grapplers in the sport, and has a fantastically well rounded attack. At UFC 131, Maia will be facing decorated wrestler Mark Munoz, an accomplished NCAA wrestler.
Gifs after the jump...
In his match with Munzo, the weakest part of Maia's grappling game will become the most crucial: takedown offense. Many matches in BJJ competitions begin with a fighter pulling guard and while takedowns are worth points, they are not the focus of the match. As a result many BJJ players do not have high level takedowns, and Maia is no exception.
Here Maia is attempting to takedown Dan Miller; the gif starts with Maia having shot in for a single leg takedown. Miller is able to keep Maia from controlling his leg and Maia wisely transitions to a body lock as Miller retreats to the cage in an attempt to maintain his balance. Maia shifts his hips around behind Miller and pitches Miller's weight forward and then executes an inside trip. He hooks Miller's near leg and Maia uses his head to pitch Miller backwards, finishing the takedown.
Maia lacks the athleticism to fight for singles and doubles against a wrestler like Munoz. It would be very unlikely that a wrestler like Munoz would allow Maia to get into the position to gain that body lock. Maia does not have the explosive penetrating step or the grinding strength required to consistently takedown the highest level MMA fighters. That is not to say Maia is not athletic or able to takedown high level wrestlers. Maia has a diverse array of techniques to get fights to the ground.
Here we see his famous throw of Chael Sonnen. When it starts it appears Maia is playing in Sonnen's world, standing in the clinch. Sonnen has double underhooks, and Maia drives him into the fence, setting the trap. Sonnen reacts to Maia by pushing back, and as soon as Maia feels to resistance he pulls Sonnen forward into a near perfect Sasae Tsurikomi Ashi. As Maia pulls Sonnen forward his right foot kicks out to block Sonnen's balancing step, and as Sonnen's balance is destroyed Maia uses his overhooks to pull Sonnen over and on to his back.
Once on the ground, Maia's aggressive top game takes over. Maia mounts with his legs out wide, and Sonnen quickly underhooks a leg in an attempt to scramble. Maia's reaction is too quick, he squeeze his knees together and drops his hips trapping Sonnen's head and right arm. Sonnen then kicks his legs for momentum and turns over his hips to roll Maia over, and rather than fight the action Maia allows Sonnen to roll and simply locks in the triangle.
Maia's top position is a fluid game and often does not follow the formulaic guard, half guard, side control, mount progression many used by many fighters. Above we see Maia's match with Kendal Grove, a very savvy grappler. Maia in a strong top position, sometimes call the quarter-guard, with only his foot trapped in Grove's guard, basically making it a pseudo-mount position.
Grove desperate to escape rolls to his knees, giving up his back and as Maia moves up to take the back and postures up to strike Grove wisely rolls forward, attempted to knock Maia off his back. While it does cause Maia to lose his hooks, Maia maintains a body lock with his arms, negating Grove's attempt to scramble.
Grove does attempt to wrap an arm around Maia's head to prevent Maia from retaking hims back, but Maia is able to easily duck out of the weak headlock. In that crucial moment Grove is posting with on arm and attempting to control Maia's head, when Maia ducks out Grove's neck is exposed. As Maia retakes the back his left arm shoots up in an attempt to get under Grove's chin and set up a rear naked choke, but Grove's grappling instincts allow him to bury his chin just in time and avoid submission.
Maia uses almost the same attack on Nate Quarry at UFC 91. Maia again starts in a strong half guard top position which Quarry had escape from the mount to and Quarry attempts to explode out into a scramble. Maia quickly flows to Quarry's back and in one motion dives his left arm around Quarry's head and under his chin.
The gif cuts out that Quarry is able to ward off the first choke attempt, but at that point Maia is using it as a distraction as he locks on the body triangle to secure the back position. Then Maia is able to use strikes to open up the throat again and grabs the opposite shoulder to prevent Quarry from again clearing the arm. Then again after some hand fighting Maia frees his right arm and finishes the choke. (full sequence on highlight video below starting at 3:15)
This sequence demonstrates Maia's methodical and chess-like approach to the ground game; using one attack to distract, secure position and set up another attack.
Now this is all dependent on Maia getting fights to the ground, and as stated before his takedowns cannot be relied on consistently. Maia has imported a technique to MMA from competitive grappling thought to be largely a fool-hardy strategy, pulling half-guard. While many fighters pull guard in MMA few would risk giving up a position as dangerous as half-guard.
Here is Maia pulling half-guard against Nate Quarry. Maia throws a strike and shoots a double leg in a rather classic MMA takedown attempt. Quarry is able to shoot his hips back and establish double underhooks to effectively stop Maia's takedown, but Maia is already sliding under Quarry.
Not all half-guards are created equal, if the top man is able to establish his balance and posture and keep the bottom man from getting under his hips, then the half-guard becomes every bit the Beatdown Position Randy Couture named it.
Maia established a deep half-guard position, Maia is on his side as opposed to being flat on his back and his head tight to Quarry's body. You can see Quarry attempt to cross face Maia with his right arm and force him on to his back but is unable to because Maia's head is tucked so tightly. Maia wastes no time, hook with his outside leg to start working for the Dogfight sweep.
Ideally the sweep operates like this:
(and Maia does execute this sweep to perfection at 2:24 in the highlight video bellow.)
Quarry is able to use his whizzer (overhook) of Maia's right arm to force Maia's weight forward as he reaches for the far leg, preventing the sweep. Quarry feeling confident in the strength of his position begins to stand to allow him to muscle down on Maia.
As Quarry begins to stand Maia transitions to a body and then executes an inside leg trip much like the one he used against Dan Miller. Maia already has the near leg hooked, like with Dan Miller and has his head tight to Quarry's chest and under his chin, Maia then straightens Quarry's leg and uses his head and the body lock to drive Quarry's weight backwards.
Maia then lands in an open guard position, securing the top just 13 seconds after he pulled the half-guard, showing us another key detail about his strategy of pulling half-guard. When pulling half-guard Maia has a sweep in mind and begins working for that sweep instantly rather than simply pulling and then waiting to see what happens.
This is not say that all Maia does from half-guard is look to sweep, he also aggressively pursues submissions from the position as well. Here against Ed Herman, as Herman lifts his hips in Maia's half-guard in an attempt to apply pressure so he could pass but Maia uses the space to shoot his hips up and start applying a triangle choke.
This video from :22 to :55 is an excellent example of Maia's highly aggressive guard game. Maia has one of the elite no gi guard games in MMA, and this evident by his diverse techniques used to control an opponent's posture. As opposed to many MMA fighters who keep their guard closed and play only with hooks or wrist control, Maia opens his guard. Playing a good open guard is difficult in MMA, to prevent strikes a fighter must either break the posture of the top man or create enough space to make striking impractical, but often fighters get caught in the middle.
Here is a gif of Jose Aldo's guard play in the 5th round of his match with Mark Hominick. Aldo is playing open guard and Hominick is in perfect posture to rain down strikes. Aldo has next to no control over Hominick's posture, he is only controlling one wrist, the rest of Aldos limbs are doing nothing to break down Hominick's posture. Aldo's knees are between them and in an ideal position to push away and create space, but he does not. As a result Hominick is able to strike and stand at will.
Now lets look at Maia's open guard, go to the video above and pause at :24 and you can see how different the guard play is with Maia. Maia is using a hand to the back of the head, an overhook and a leg across the back to break Ed Herman down and a foot on the hip to stretch Herman out and prevent him from posturing up. As a result Herman is unable to strike and is focused solely on regaining his posture. Even as Herman ducks out from the grip on the back of his head Maia's other limbs all prevent Herman from fully posturing up and opening up the omoplata attempt.
Maia's highly technical style is an excellent demonstration of the effectiveness of a high level, aggressive and well-rounded grappling game in MMA.
I'd like to thank Kid Nate for his excellent breakdown of Maia's half-guard game and the gifs from his classic Judo Chop from 2009.