When Gray Maynard stepped into the Octagon to face Frankie Edgar on the first day of 2011, he knew he could beat the lightweight champ. He'd done it once before, two years prior to the unexpected win over B.J. Penn that earned Edgar the belt. Hell, Maynard had even gotten measurably better since that first fight, improving technically as a boxer and earning five straight wins over the best the lightweight division had to offer. To Gray Maynard and his team, the lightweight title was his.
Only it wasn't.
Something went wrong--or a lot of somethings. After winning one of the most dominant first rounds in lightweight history, Maynard found himself stuck on the end of Edgar's punches. Worse, the three-time All American was being outwrestled by a man who, as a collegiate wrestler, had competed two weight classes beneath him, winning no major titles in the process.
Frustrated and tired from his failed first-round assault, Maynard fought to the best of his ability--and earned a draw. Edgar retained his belt, and Maynard returned to the gym to begin training for his rematch.
Maynard's boxing was on par for his third fight with Edgar, with the addition of a wide variety of kicks and knees to keep the champion guessing. His strikes were crisp, and he was far more patient than last time, refusing to gas himself out going for Frankie's jugular too soon. Better prepared, with even more knowledge of how to beat Edgar, Maynard must have once again felt assured of victory after another stunning first round.
And this time, Edgar knocked him out.
In many ways, Gray Maynard is a momentum fighter--what boxing folks like to call a "rhythm" fighter. Both in each respective fight and throughout his career as a whole, Maynard has thrived on the thrill of the chase. Despite the dearth of knockouts on his record, all it takes is for Maynard to land one punch for him to settle into gear and go to work. For the Bully, one success leads to another, and each successive blow landed makes it more and more difficult for his opponent to turn the tide.
In short, Maynard is not a thinking fighter so much as he is a feeling fighter. This isn't to say that he can't think, but rather that he is at his best when he doesn't have to (I explored this concept in-depth in my breakdown of Lawler vs Brown, which you can find in two parts here, and here). Faced with an opponent who will crumble under pressure, Maynard is a veritable steamroller, crushing his foe with powerful punches and smothering wrestling. Forced to step back and consider his course, however, and Maynard is the one who crumbles.
In Bloody Elbow's Vivisection of UFC Fight Night: Bader vs Saint Preux, Zane Simon mentioned Maynard's draw with Edgar as the fight that broke him and signaled the end of his run as a top lightweight. Not only do I tend to agree, but I would take Zane's assessment one step further and label Maynard's two title fights with Edgar a microcosm of his entire career. A meteoric rise followed by a confidence-bruising scuffle, and a steep and sudden decline.
Let's analyze the key moments from these two excellent fights (both of which still bear multiple repeat viewings), and understand what it is about Frankie Edgar that enabled him to break the Bully.
As the first round of this fight begins, Joe Rogan mentions that the key to Maynard's first win over Edgar was his wrestling. This is absolutely true--it was Maynard's grinding top control that sealed his unanimous decision win over Edgar in just his sixth--and Frankie's tenth--professional fight. At that time, Edgar had yet to master the art of fighting in transitions--the hallmark of his style during his title run--while Maynard, never very smooth at transitioning from boxing to wrestling, was nevertheless able to get by on wrestling skill and pure physicality.
And Maynard's boxing? Well, this fight would serve as a perfect opportunity to show off how technically proficient he had become.
(Click to enlarge)
1. Maynard loads up his left . . .
2. . . . and feints with a left uppercut, which Edgar responds to by backing away.
3. Frankie skips around for a moment before diving in with a whiffed right hand.
4. Happily re-seizing the initiative, Maynard once again shifts to his left hip and feints the left uppercut, closing the distance as he does.
5. Edgar bites, swatting at Maynard's feint with his right hand and leaving a gaping hole in his guard which hungrily eats up Maynard's true attack, a leaping left hook.
This is just a beautiful display of feinting by Gray Maynard, helped by Frankie Edgar's "taking turns" mentality. Edgar tends, before he gets a full read on his opponent, to simply lead and defend, alternating between offense and defense rather than blending the two together. This willingness to wait on Edgar's part allowed Maynard the space he needed to put together strings of dangerous offensive techniques.
In round two, something went awry. Perhaps, as Rogan suggests in the commentary, Maynard's early success led him to pursue power punches and eschew the set-ups that made them effective. That certainly seemed to be the case, and after a round that saw Edgar resurging with numerous hard right hands and body shots, Maynard's corner demanded that he go back to feinting.
At this point, we saw something from Maynard that would not be so evident in the next fight with Edgar: he fought back. In round three Maynard came out busily feinting, marching his undersized opponent down with punches and takedown attempts. The next two rounds saw a great deal of back-and-forth action, marked by Edgar's growing confidence and timing on counters, and Maynard's inability to take the New Jersey native down--a marked difference from their first contest back in 2008. Still, Maynard was in the fight to the very end.
The draw seemed to disappoint both fighters, though certainly Maynard more than anyone. Here was Frankie Edgar, a man that Maynard knew he could beat. He had done so before. And yet victory eluded him. Maynard resolved to win his belt once and for all in the rematch.
It was impossible to understand the toll that the draw to Edgar had taken on Maynard's psyche until this fight. Maynard had always been a fighter who needed to build off of momentum, but in the past he had always been capable of restarting that momentum when his opponent managed to stem the tide. At UFC 125 he had hurt Edgar, but without the ability to enforce his wrestling game, Maynard let the fight slip through his fingers.
Now, half a year later, Maynard displayed even more crisp boxing, as well as a variety of unprecedented, if somewhat awkwardly thrown kicks. His trainers' idea, it seemed, was to keep Edgar guessing.
At first, it worked. Maynard landed a beautiful uppercut--of what my mentor calls the "Cuban" variety--taking his head off-line and stepping through to catch Frankie as he sat down to counter (GIF). Once again, just minutes into the first round, Edgar looked near to losing his title. But then Edgar did something he hadn't done before. Just moments after getting rocked, Edgar stopped running away, and engaged.
1. Edgar drives into Maynard with his shoulder, tying him up with an over-under grip.
2. As Maynard starts to wrestle, Edgar places his left hand on his forehead and shoves him back.
3. Maynard grabs Edgar's left wrist and begins walking forward as Edgar retreats.
4. A hard overhand right from Edgar catches Maynard standing tall with his feet out of position, clearly stunning him.
Suddenly, despite being badly hurt, Edgar had uncovered something telling about Maynard. When Maynard went to punch, Edgar would smother him, denying him the forward momentum that was the basis for so much of his offense. Additionally, Edgar forcibly converted Maynard from boxer to wrestler, and then struck him in the interim between the two. Above, Maynard attempts to free himself from Edgar's grips, but when Edgar turns around and begins to escape, it's Maynard holding on and walking forward, casually grappling rather than keeping himself in position to absorb a counter strike. This mental gamesmanship, combined with Edgar's newfound confidence in countering Maynard amidst his onslaughts, not only allowed Edgar to once again survive a disastrous first round, but set the stage for Maynard's ultimate fall from grace.
Click to enlarge
1. Edgar adopts a southpaw stance.
2. Maynard lunges in with the standard lead right hand, and Edgar deftly slips the punch.
3. Adapting one of his favorite counter-punching motions for grappling, Edgar latches on to Maynard with his right arm as he careens past.
4. Maynard fights off the grip around his torso, and slips out of Edgar's attempted switch to a single leg.
5. Maynard begins to turn to face Edgar . . .
6. . . . but Edgar is already in position for a cracking right kick to the ribs.
This kind of phase-shifting, this fluid blending of every aspect of fighting, is truly what Frankie Edgar does best. It's a skill of his that I myself have only recently come to appreciate, and it's the skill that enabled him to, once and for all, break Gray Maynard. While Maynard floundered, frustrated by each and every failed attack, Edgar flowed seamlessly from one technique to the other, seizing on opportunities as they presented themselves, rather than willing them to appear.
Worse, Maynard had almost completely shut down by this point in the fight. Despite Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan's assertions that Maynard had paced himself in round one (unlike in the last bout) and would come into round two a much fresher fighter, Maynard effectively gave away the second and third rounds. It seemed almost as if Maynard's confidence was undone by the fact that he absolutely could not finish the champion. This creeping suspicion was almost certainly underscored by Edgar's improved counter-striking and wrestling game. Like last time, Maynard failed repeatedly to use his credentialed wrestling skills, simply because he couldn't blend the phases of fighting as well as Edgar, while Edgar used the mere threat of his wrestling to outposition and outstrike the challenger.
Round four came, and this time Edgar confidently assured Maynard that he would never be champion by knocking him out.
(Click to enlarge)
1. Edgar shoots for a double.
2. He turns, trying to run the pipe, but Maynard turns with him and, using his right underhook, prevents the takedown.
3. Still, Edgar drives for the finish, and forces Maynard to give up his back with a half-nelson.
4. Maynard, desperate to keep Edgar from taking his back, powers to his feet, but his body is still bent forward.
5. Sensing Maynard's compromised posture, Edgar throws an uppercut as he stands up (fist circled, as it's hard to see).
6. Maynard, blind to the strike and possibly still stunned from a blow he received moments before, staggers and falls to the ground.
And that was it. Despite resounding success in the first round and, ostensibly, a more intelligent approach to fighting the champion, Maynard was undone. A few more punches, and Maynard's title hopes were dashed, almost certainly forever.
So how did we get here? I set out to understand the career of Gray Maynard, and now we find ourselves at the end of a Frankie Edgar breakdown. Of course, that's the point, isn't it? At the beginning of this article I posed the question, "what happened to Gray Maynard?" The answer, of course, is Frankie Edgar. Frankie Edgar happened.
Granted, Maynard will almost certainly never fight Edgar again. Were he a different man, one could assume that he might climb the ranks of the lightweight division to challenge for the belt now that Edgar has dropped to 145. The unfortunate truth, however, is that the draw and loss to Edgar seem to have taken an irreversible toll on Gray Maynard's mentality in the cage.
Whereas before Maynard was able to withstand adversity and still come back to win (the Huerta fight, for example, was not necessarily easy for him), Edgar seems to have challenged, and permanently damaged, his perception of his own abilities. Since the first draw to Edgar, it has taken less and less to convince Maynard to fold. In the second fight, he was decisively knocked out, seemingly frustrated into near-complete inactivity by the fact that he couldn't finish Edgar. In his next bout, against Clay Guida, Gray won but was unable to generate any meaningful offense against an opponent who did little more than move away, nowhere near the challenge he had faced in Edgar. Next, Maynard face TJ Grant and, despite early success, backed away after eating his first clean punch of the night, not badly hurt so much as critically discouraged. And in his last bout against Nate Diaz, a failed takedown and a clean left hand seemed to be all it took for Diaz to convince Gray that victory was not an option.
Is it possible that Maynard comes back from this slump? Certainly. But confidence issues have undone greater, more experienced fighters, and it seems, unfortunately, that we may be witnessing the end of his career. Three years ago, Maynard would have been a lock to beat Ross Pearson, his upcoming opponent. Now? Only Gray can say.