Maia (15-3) is rightfully assessed within the top one-percent of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu phenoms to cross over into full contact fighting. Almost one-half of his MMA wins are over other BJJ black belts, three of whom he submitted. The Sao Paulo native flaunts a nearly unparalleled list of sport grappling credentials and is one of the select few to transfer his stratosphere-skills to the cage, mainly because he's not a one-trick pony. Initially, his background in Judo was the conduit that enabled him to impose his irrepressible mat-work, but now Maia has whittled together a savvy kickboxing arsenal under the tutelage of the great Wanderlei Silva -- and done so in a frighteningly short span of time.
The emphasis on improving his striking was inspired by the crushing right-hand counter of Nate Marquardt, who dusted Maia in short order at UFC 102. The hours of toiling away on the focus mitts was evident in his follow up performance over Dan Miller; a decision victory that was contested almost entirely on the feet. Maia was then the final slice of alpha pound-for-pound nominee Anderson Silva's string of three decisively unpopular title defenses. As he did against Patrick Cote and Thales Leites, the middleweight champion pirouetted around the cage and flitted out of reach, squelching the challenger's output while offering little of his own.
Maia would grind out Mario Miranda and Kendall Grove with overbearing positional dominance before losing to surging wrestler Mark Munoz, in a bout that was much more competitive than your run-of-the-mill unanimous decision would reflect. The D1 All American wrestler was the first, however, to trudge fearlessly into Maia's grappling vortex and emerge unscathed. Maia, who is currently ranked fifth in the world at middleweight, reset with a convincing decision over former Sengoku champ Jorge Santiao in his latest.
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Chris Weidman (7-0) came out of nowhere. Just two weeks out, he filled in for an injured Rafael Natal and scalloped a career-defining upset over Alessio Sakara in his UFC debut. But first things first: the New Yorker was a standout wrestler all through high school and then earned All American honors -- twice -- at both the JuCo and Division 1 level. Here's wrestling consultant Coach Mike on Weidman's collegiate career:
"Weidman only started 2 years and had solid (but not spectacular) regular seasons. If it were not for his two NCAA tournaments, he would have been remembered like Rashad Evans as a good but not great D1 wrestler. Fortunately for him, he went bananas both those years at Nationals, and got 6th then 3rd in some ridiculously tough weight classes which included the likes of Ryan Bader, Phil Davis, and Jake Rosholt. He placed ahead of Phil Davis the year he got third and beat future world team member JD Bergman in the consi-finals."
Winning a few smaller sport grappling tournaments and training under Matt Serra is huge for Weidman, making him a more complete threat on the mat rather than just exorbitantly skilled in wrestling alone. He's billed as a purple belt in BJJ, though belt color doesn't really translate like it used to.
Weidman cut his teeth in the well established Ring of Combat promotion, destroying three foes in the first round (2 TKOs, 1 sub) and then snaring the promotion's middleweight strap with a decision win. At this point in the timeline, he imprinted his name with the upset of Sakara and continued to vault forward with consecutive submission victories, fitting Jesse Bongfeldt with a nasty standing guillotine and Tom Lawlor with a beautiful Brabo choke.
Gifs and analysis in the full entry.
Well, you should have known this gif was coming. The feat is even more salient in retrospective now that Chael has reminded us all how imposing his wrestling is.
Maia shrinks the distance to clinch up with Sonnen and, with double overhooks no less, hits a poetic lateral drop using his hips as a fulcrum. The subtle key to his success here is how he sweeps Sonnen's left foot on the way down to completely crumble his balance.
It was all downhill from here for Sonnen, who fell into one of Maia's clever traps and tapped to a triangle choke. Maia has consistently lured opponents into submissions with intelligence and by always being several steps ahead.
Out of everyone Maia has faced in MMA, Mark Munoz bears the most similarities to Weidman: elite wrestling, sufficient capabilities in submission grappling and comparable striking.
Since, of Maia's three career defeats, Munoz was the only adversary who didn't win by out-striking him, his accomplishments are even more salient. Weidman obviously has some semblance of awareness with BJJ tactics in addition to his wrestling prowess -- and exactly how much that is will be imperative against a technician of Maia's caliber.
These last few animations show how far Maia has progressed from the barely rudimentary striker he was early on.
His stance, punching form, footwork and use of angles is markedly improved, but what I appreciate most is how aggressively he attacks. Some ground specialists remain quite hesitant and unsure when they develop their striking, but Maia exudes confidence and presses with conviction, knowing he just has to protect his chin as being taken down is a counter he welcomes.
The version to the right is an apt example of most of the combinations Maia throws, perhaps too repetitively.
He tucks his chin, barges forward and unloads punches fiercely enough to convince his opponent to retreat backwards instead of staying in the pocket to counter. Holding ground would allow the defender to get wrapped up in his clinch and stayiyng completely free of Maia's tentacles is typically the cardinal priority. Maia also makes sure his head isn't a stationary target, though it's not the most artful technique.
The way Weidman reacts to a frenetic blitz of incoming strikes will totally dictate the flow of this match.
In past matches, it was encouraging to see him hold steadfast and protect himself with excellent defense. Assured by the Sherman Tank-like balance of his wrestling base enabled him to cover up and stay poised to counter-punch or rifle a takedown, which is an encouraging sign for a fairly green fighter with a grappling background. As noted, this might be a questionable outlook that could lead to tying up with Maia.
What I don't know: which, if either, will have the advantage on the feet (I'm considering them to be pretty evenly matched) and what Weidman's strategy will be. He could either rely solely on his crisp boxing technique and sprawl-and-brawl or enter the jungle and implement his wrestling, in any magnitude ranging from scarcely to often.
What I do know: Maia will push forward and throw his hands and feet with borderline recklessness in the hopes that Weidman's instincts take over and he reverts to his wrestling.
My point is merely that Maia will do what Maia does and Weidman has the freedom to exercise different options.
That doesn't necessarily constitute the benefits that are normally associated with that leisure either -- Weidman will have to out-gun Maia on the feet while moving backwards substantially enough to overcome how favorably the judges view aggression. I'm just not sure he can finish or widen the gap enough to compensate for Maia's forward-minded aggression. That leaves interspersing takedowns, which presents its own set of hazards.
These last two gifs against Bongfeldt again show Weidman's tendency to lock horns in the free movement phase. Above, we also see Bongfeldt, a southpaw, connect with a weapon that Maia throws liberally, which is the left high kick. Bongfeldt chases him down and attains the fence-clinch, which is where Maia will want to be.
The same applies to the left, though Weidman unveils another nice tool with the leaping knee -- a viable but risky tactic to consider against Maia -- and immediately transitions to constricting the choke.
The final entry is why this match up is probably the most compelling on the card.
Weidman hits almost the exact same lateral drop as Maia did against Sonnen, but does so from the body lock and doesn't quite transition to the top position as smoothly.
This is a pairing between two phenomenal grapplers with sturdy striking and an opposing 70:30 ratio in wrestling and takedowns vs. submission wit (Maia = 70% subs and 30% wrestling and takedowns; vice-versa for Weidman).
The shocker is that Weidman comes in as the favorite despite experiencing a mere fraction of overall and top-shelf opposition. Maia's superior experience, extraordinary BJJ credentials and striking tenacity sway me in his direction, though the match is undoubtedly a close one on paper. I'm fascinated to see the Weidman's strategy, and his savvy in submission grappling will be tested equally with Maia's in takedowns and wrestling.
My Prediction: Demian Maia by decision.
Maia vs. Sonnen gif via MMA-Core.com
All others via Zombie Prophet of IronForgesIron.com