In 2007, Demian Maia entered the UFC fresh off his gold medal at Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Grappling World Championship, the most competitive no gi competition in the world. In two years, Maia cut through the division with a 5-0 record using an fighting style focused completely on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Maia wanted to show the MMA world that he could win fights without throwing a single strike.
Maia would take opponent's down or if he was unable to score a takedown, pull guard and look to sweep. Once on top Maia would aggressively work for dominant positions and then submission finishes. But last night against Chris Weidman, another elite grappler, Maia only looked interested in throwing haymaker left hands. When Weidman scored a takedown Maia established his guard and then looked Herb Dean to ask for a stand up. Clearly something had changed.
The path that lead the Brazilian to abandon his greatest strength can be traced back to his loss to former UFC fighter Nate Marquardt. The fight ended after just twenty-one seconds with an epic counter right hand KO that punished Maia for throwing a lazy leg kick. It was a devastating defeat for Maia, who was gaining serious momentum towards a title shot at the time. The impact of this loss was serious for Maia, but many also saw it as an indictment of his grappling focused approach.
The next time MMA fans saw Maia, he was facing fellow Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt Dan Miller. To the mild surprise of those watching, Maia boxed his way to a decision win. The win would eventually earn Maia a title shot when Vitor Belfort was forced to withdraw from his title fight. Maia would be completely outclassed on the feet by Anderson Silva, unable to close distance or land strikes.
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Since then Maia's success as been inconsistent, and no longer focused on grappling. His reaction to the Marquardt and Silva losses was to begin training with Wanderlei Silva to improve his striking. While this seems like a reasonable response to his struggles in those matches, it would remove what made Maia a difficult match up. In MMA, being different in terms of approach or tactics is a huge advantage. Maia's willingness to pull guard and use upper level competitive grappling techniques in the cage was intimidating and difficult to replicate in the gym.
But the more Maia focused on his striking, the more he failed to update his grappling. In any competitive sport, from baseball to submission grappling there is one motto: "adapt or die". Once enough film is out on an athlete, their tendencies will become known and they will be forced to adapt their game to continue to succeed. But with Maia's focus so firmly fixed on his striking his grappling stopped evolving.
This was never more evident than in the Mark Munoz fight. Maia had early success with his striking but when Munoz adjusted and the fight hit the mat. And then, there was Maia attempting the same half guard sweep he had used in 2009 against Nate Quarry and when Munoz seemed prepared to stuff that sweep, Maia did not have an answer. He was able to create scrambles and threaten a submission on Munoz, but the fight was lost for a failure to adapt both on the feet and on the mat.
That pattern repeated itself at UFC on Fox 2. While there are some mutterings of Maia being ill the night of the fight against Weidman, but his utter disinterest in grappling is a sobering sign for his career going forward. Now grappling prowess is not something a man simply looses like stat decay in a video game, this is an issue with preparation and training leading up the fight. If Maia put his mind to it, he certainly could restructure his fight camps and return to rolling roots. That said, he is now 34-years-old, at the end of his physical prime, and his time as an elite middleweight is running out fast, if not already over. Maia's reaction to this loss will define the latter part of his career.
One path Maia could take is rather than working on his striking, begin to work on his ability to close distance and enter the clinch, a position from which he does have strong takedowns. Help reform his MMA game to enhance his grappling abilities rather than lead him away could keep Maia a relevant UFC Middleweight for years to come. Or he could end up in the dustbin of history as yet another grappler who feel in love his striking.