Beyond UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, the UFC 156: Aldo vs. Edgar main-card whopper that pits Jon Fitch vs. Demian Maia probably features the two best grapplers in the 170-pound division. And even better -- it smacks of an old school style vs. style match up, as Fitch proudly reps the Purdue Boilermakers as their former team captain and now a rugged and tenacious wrestling specialist while Maia exudes the archetypal essence of pure Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu finesse.
American Kickboxing Academy's Jon Fitch (24-4-1) struggled early in his MMA career. He began with a 2-2-1 pace that included a pair of stoppage losses to future UFC talent in Mike Pyle (1st-round submission in his debut) and Wilson Gouveia (2nd-round TKO) along with a No Contest ruling against Solomon Hutcherson in March of '03. From that point forward, Fitch would steam-roll 16-straight opponents; an admirable journey that would halt in a UFC welterweight title fight against St. Pierre in August of '08. Undeterred, Fitch would again cement himself as the #2 man in the division with a 5-piece run, though that surge was stalled by a draw with B.J. Penn and then snapped entirely by a crushing 1st-round TKO loss to Johny Hendricks.
Brazilian Demian Maia (17-4) barged into MMA as one of the most accredited sport grapplers to ever make the switch and, as advertised, tore through 7-straight foes, notching stoppages in each (6 of which were in the 1st round). Then a middleweight, Maia made his UFC premiere and continued his reign of terror by submitting 5 adversaries, each gradually increasing in prestige. Maia's roll culminated with a slick lateral drop on middleweight wrestling behemoth Chael Sonnen (with double over-hooks and accented by a clever foot sweep, no less) that led to a triangle choke, and still makes me pee a little every time I see it.
Veteran Nate Marquardt chipped his chin with a mean right hand to delay his progress, but Maia rolled out some seriously improved kickboxing to score a decision over Dan Miller before dropping a title bid to middleweight deity Anderson Silva. The highly competitive losses to Mark Munoz and Chris Weidman that dragged down his closing 3-2 streak would inspire a drop to welterweight, where Maia has stopped a pair (Dong Hyun Kim via injury, Rick Story by submission) and revivified his stock by getting back to his submission grappling roots.
Height: even (both 6'0")
Reach: Fitch (74" vs. 72")
Chin: even (2 TKO losses for Fitch, 1 for Maia)
Striking: Maia slightly (see below)
Top-position dominance: Fitch
Guard Play/submissions: Maia
Experience: Fitch (slightly)
Level of past opposition: even
Betting odds: Fitch
While the intrigue of a ground war lends the most appeal, there's some truth to the cliche that a match up between two stellar grapplers will often play out with less electricity on the feet. It may be contentious, but I'm giving Maia the nod in the striking department. The way that he's rapidly accelerated his kickboxing, especially since he started as a submission purist, is nothing short of extraordinary.
Maia definitely underwent the struggles of having a new toy to play with, as he's been criticized for relying too much on his improved striking. He tried to wear the hat of the methodical technician on the feet against Dan Miller but later added a fiery aggression that perfectly suits his arsenal. As long as he keeps his chin protected, Maia can afford to be acceptably sloppy from the standpoint that being taken down is hardly a risk to be mitigated.
From the southpaw stance, Maia has been cranking off a malicious left high kick and straight left hand that are attention-grabbing and meaningful, and the exact opposite of non-threatening or prodding strikes. Whereas most fighters are tasked with the concern of being susceptible to takedowns when planting their feet and throwing heaters, Maia would welcome that counter, as it would put him in his deadliest position. This is an example of Maia employing his striking as a sensible complement to his Jiu-Jitsu rather than trying to win fights on the feet.
Fitch's striking is nothing to write home about, but it's far from inadequate. His boxing is accented by simple basics and the liabilities of his semi-porous defense and absence of punching power. However, much of that can be attributed to the manner in which Fitch has always applied his striking as a tool to further empower his wrestling game. He's been able to get away, in most cases, with mediocre striking because his takedowns and top control do most of the talking.
A lurking factor mentioned in the specs above is evolution. Overall, while I would never claim he's been entirely devoid of improvement, Fitch is basically the same animal. There is one pivot-point in a Jon Fitch fight: if he can score takedowns, he wins -- he doesn't if he can't. That formula gets a new twist against Maia, as successfully putting the submission whiz on his back not only doesn't increase his chances, but increases the risk instead. Maia is, without question, the most volatile and complex submission grappler that Fitch has ever encountered, and probably ever will.
The drastic contrast of their past evolutions and Fitch's limited pathways toward victory are standout aspects of this match up. I've never been outraged at Fitch's grinding style or lack of finishes, but the fact remains that positional control is imperative to his success. While Maia has an enormous edge with submission offense, his BJJ acumen also unfolds in demoralizing displays of positional brilliance, from the top and the bottom, and also in the standing position and in scrambles/transitions. In other words, Maia presents the threat to finish with a submission anytime he's in contact range and also excels with positional grappling.
Fitch's auxiliary weapons of clinch mauling and takedowns also lose a little luster here, as, again, succeeding with those tactics only put him square in the jaws of one of MMA's best submissionists.
In plain terms, Maia seems tailor-made to wreak havoc on Fitch. His Judo has proven to be feisty in the clinch, his striking has more oomph and velocity, and his best assets await when Fitch is able to employ his own. To win, Fitch has to invoke nonstop control, likely for 15 minutes straight, without making any mistakes, whereas Maia has the ability to tie on submission attempts anytime Fitch is tangled up with him -- and almost 100% of Fitch's intentions are to do just that.
I'm not overlooking the scenario of Fitch muffling Maia's ground wizardry, I just don't consider it likely. Elite or even upper-end submission grapplers are conspicuously amiss from Fitch's rap sheet: out of his 28 fights, I'd throw Penn and Erick Silva there. He might have the capability to shut out an otherworldly sub-fighter, but he just hasn't convinced me of it yet.
My Prediction: Demian Maia by submission.