The name Demian Maia (16-4) is synonymous with submission excellence. After a respectable run in the middleweight division, the grappling whiz set his sights on welterweight and made his 170-pound premiere against Dong Hyun Kim in a bout that didn't live up to expectations, as Kim injured his rib in the early going. The 1st-round TKO stands but the unusual circumstances clouded the victory, leaving Maia's UFC 153 clash with the gritty Rick Story (14-5) as a better measuring stick for his future potential in the welterweight division.
The gaudily decorated Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) practitioner debuted with a perfect 6-fight record in 2007 and seared off to a 4-0 start in the UFC, winning each match by submission -- exactly as advertised. Maia's introductory roll was capped off by his most arresting performance; a slick outside-trip takedown and cunning transition to a triangle choke pulled off on none other than the inimitable Chael Sonnen. The impetus to evolve was inspired by his first loss, Nate Marquardt, who blasted the lazily low-kicking Maia off his feet. The definitive 1st-round KO steered Maia toward Wanderlei Silva's gym where the Pride FC legend -- and perhaps the most heralded knockout artist in MMA history -- hammered his kickboxing into tighter form.
The results were immediately apparent and even somewhat shocking, as the lifelong grappler flaunted sharp kickboxing combinations to earn a decision over Dan Miller in his next outing, which paved the way to a title shot against the superlative Anderson Silva. Despite a valiant effort from Maia, the gap in striking was too vast and Silva refused to engage on any other terms, forcing a stand-up fight and taunting Maia in a forgettable 25-minute decision to retain his title. Though Maia went on to notch a 3-2 pace at 185-pounds (8-4 in the UFC overall), he concluded his middleweight run losing 2 of his last 3.
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"The Horror" Story wrestled in college at the NAIA level (Southern Oregon University) but has adapted his wrestling and tied it together with his boxing exceptionally well. Pre-UFC, Story scored a win over current UFC contender Jake Ellenberger and made his Octagon debut with a 7-2 record (losses included Strikeforce's Nathan Coy and Mario Miranda, the latter of whom Maia defeated in the UFC). After dropping a decision to John Hathaway at UFC 99, Story reeled off a career-defining 6-fight stretch that was highlighted by marquee wins over another contemporary contender in Johny Hendricks and a former frontrunner in Thiago Alves (both by decision).
His sizzling momentum would cease quickly: Story would fall to Charlie Brenneman, who agreed to the fight just 24-hours prior, in an inspirational upset and then plummet further when he was edged out on the score cards by Martin Kampmann. He returned to form with a commanding decision over Pit Fight Team debutante Brock Jardine in his last, but it wasn't the caliber of win Story needs to reignite his stock as an A-level welterweight.
In Maia's last win, the quality of opposition was there but authenticating means were not. Since both fighters are coming off successful but mediocre performances and aspiring to make a definitive statement, this is a pivotal bout. Considering their career trajectories, a relevant win would do wonders whereas a loss would be a particularly crushing blow.
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The most appealing aspect of Maia's drop to welterweight is how it might facilitate his takedowns. Though we all saw Maia progress admirably on the feet, priority numero uno should be imposing his stratosphere-level BJJ. As many before him have, Maia seemed so comfortable with his striking advancements that he relied on it to win rather than employed it to complement his unique specialty.
Honestly, Maia's sponge-like absorption and rapid progression on the feet were truly incredible, especially for a grappling aficionado. However, only a few fighters hold a candle to Maia's BJJ credentials and even fewer have adjusted their grappling styles to MMA more effectively. Standout sport grapplers who transition to MMA always undergo a pivotal metamorphosis, particularly in becoming accustomed to the absence of wearing the gi or combat kimono; integral componentry in pure BJJ that offers the luxury of grips and hand-holds to execute techniques.
The way Maia adapted his sport-BJJ acumen to MMA and then expedited his striking development demonstrated his freakish talent. Though he deserves high marks for regaling us with such accomplishments, his ultimate goal should be forcing opponents to confront him where he has an outrageous advantage -- meaning his striking is secondary to the consistency and effectiveness of his takedown prowess.
In this arena, the encouraging evidence is Maia's thorough handling of beefy wrestler Chael Sonnen and the fact that he glued himself to Dong Hyun Kim immediately, slipped around to back control and put him on the ground. That determined intent to inflict his submission wizardry is exactly what he needs more of. His foray into martial arts began with Judo at age 6 and, though it was a short stint, signs of that background are much more prevalent in his game than traditional wrestling techniques. Judo, almost exclusively manipulated from the clinch position, does allow for more gradual and incremental pursuit of takedowns; the aggressor can maintain constant pressure while closing the distance rather than launching at his opponent from outside.
Additionally, in the context of this encounter, Story's core competency is wrestling. Maia would be hard-pressed to beat a former collegiate wrestler at his own game, so his arsenal of trips and throws from the clinch should largely influence his success. On the same token, putting a strong, hard-nosed and experienced wrestler on his back is no easy task.
Generally, Story's gameplan revolves around his offensive wrestling, yet succeeding with takedowns against Maia will only put him precisely where Maia is at his best. Story's options are to roll out a sprawl-and-brawl strategy and endeavor to keep the action entirely on the feet or pick his spots to land takedowns and disengage before Maia goes to work on him. Needless to say, the latter is riskier but, while Story is a capable boxer, he might not have the marksmanship to beat Maia convincingly on the feet.
Story's marquee performance was his clinical dismantling of Muay Thai expert Thiago Alves. Using a brilliant array of feints and footwork to pin him on the cage, Story alternated between dropping levels and attacking Alves' hips to faking takedowns and slicing tight punches through his guard. He's been able to blend his striking and wrestling together exceptionally well. Again though -- the catch is that Maia might not fear the takedown and could even welcome that approach in order to enforce his submission grappling.
The focus then rests on Story's defensive wrestling, which has been far from bulletproof. It's no coincidence that Story landed the greater number of takedowns in each of his UFC wins (with the exception of Johny Hendricks) and was out-wrestled in each of his losses (though he was even with Hathaway at 4 takedowns apiece). Wrestling clearly predicates his effectiveness.
The concern with that past trend is that less-than-stellar wrestlers, like Kampmann and Nick Osipczak, have been able to take Story down. In fact, Kampmann, who's known for his striking and submissions, won the takedown battle by a margin of 3 to 1 and did so with the clinch-centric trips that Maia prefers.
Story has better technique on the feet: he has more power, he relies mostly on straight and crisp punches and his stance and defense are compact and tight. Maia, despite being a little loose and reckless, is still a formidable striker. He heaves heavy high kicks and hurls big overhands, then chases behind his attack to lock horns when the defender plants his feet to absorb the blow, or anticipates the angle they use to evade.
Even if Story is able to keep the fight standing, the gap in skill is not monumental. Maia still has some defensive holes that Story could plug a left hand into, which stands as his best option. Despite his technical shortcomings, Maia's chin and gameness allowed him to survive a 25-minute kickboxing match with Anderson Silva, which leads me to believe he can do the same with Story. Eventually, I see Maia capitalizing in the clinch and working his specialty on the mat, but it won't be easy -- especially because Story will be well aware of his intentions. Story has never been submitted and will be feisty in grappling encounters as well.
The betting lines reflect the competitiveness of the match up with Maia creeping ahead as a slight favorite (average of -145), which seems like a fair assessment.
My Prediction: Demian Maia by decision.