Georges St-Pierre's shadow still hangs heavy over the UFC, especially over the welterweight division he once ruled. The French-Canadian is yet to officially announce either a retirement or a return to fighting, but should he decide to come back, at least one man will be ready for him.
Demian Maia, fresh off a smothering victory over Gunnar Nelson at UFC 194, was unequivocal when asked if he fancied a fight with the former champion. "Of course," Maia told Bloody Elbow. "GSP is the most dominant champion this weight class ever had, a great fighter and a great ambassador of our sport. It would be a challenge and an honor to compete against him."
Should such an encounter happen, Maia likes his chances - despite having a great deal of respect for St-Pierre's abilities. "He is well-rounded and a great athlete. It's a very tough fight," said Maia. "I'm confident, as any fighter should be, against anyone I fight. I'm sure [St-Pierre] feels the same."
However, welcoming GSP back to the UFC is not Maia's top priority. "I would prefer fighting for the title," he said. "Because my dream is and was always to be the UFC champion."
Maia feels he has a strong case as to why he deserves the next shot at the welterweight crown.
"All fights I won at welterweight weren't questionable and I think I won all rounds of the bouts, besides the last round of the [Ryan] LaFlare fight. My two losses came to two fighters with crazy resumes," he said. "Rory [MacDonald], which was FOTN at UFC 170, and Jake Shields - who holds wins against pretty much all top guys at welterweight - in a split decision, that I know I could have done better, but frankly I didn't think I lost that fight."
"Now I won four fights in a row, and I'm 7-2 as a welterweight," said Maia. "I think a title shot could be justifiable. If not possible, then I would like a fight that helps me get there. I don't have anything against any fighter in the weight class, it's a very tough weight class, and my only goal is to fight for the belt."
Maia's name is being mentioned as the next potential title challenger due in part to his dominant victory over Gunnar Nelson last month. In preparation for the highly touted Icelander, Maia worked to improve his striking but still planned a heavy grappling oriented strategy. The key to his gameplan was focusing on techniques to close the distance on Nelson, in a manner that nullified Gunni's Karate style.
Maia's performance over Nelson was among the most overwhelming grappling performances seen in the UFC lately. However, going into the fight, Maia never believed it would be so one-sided.
"Gunnar is a great fighter, extremely talented, well rounded, very technical and also a very good grappler," states Maia. "You never go into a fight thinking it's going to be easy, cause it's never easy! Things might go well, but that's the result of good work, and even so at any given second a distraction can cost you the fight! If you are playing other sports, like basketball, football, tennis, pretty much every sport, and you open a big lead there's no way you gonna lose the match over one mistake. In MMA you can lose at the final seconds of a bout, no matter how big your lead is."
Maia's victory over Nelson was rare in that each judge scored at least one 10-8 round. Maia welcomes this scoring and has a strong opinion on the lack of 10-8's in today's MMA.
"I believe judges use 10-9's too often, and it's unfair," said Maia. "In many senses as you see rounds where one guy dominates the other, or hurts him badly, and he gets the same 10-9 round as others do in uneventful rounds where judges are forced to pick a winner through a little more cage control or something like that."
Maia believes these scoring practices can lead to "improper results". He also thinks that a low understanding of grappling prevents more 10-8 scores, although he feels this is changing, citing Ryan Hall's victory over Artem Lobov at the TUF22 Finale as evidence.
Another outside-the-cage topic that gets Maia fired up is the UFC rankings. After the Nelson fight Maia was vocal about his feelings over the rankings' lack of sense and accuracy. His opinions haven't changed.
"My point about the rankings is that it's pretty much based on personal opinions," said Maia. "It would be more fair and objective if you have some math formula that would be a criteria, with points for certain wins, much like you have in tennis or other sports, as at least everybody would know the criteria and what to expect, and what they have to do."
Maia feels confounded with the rankings and particularly the way in which fighters move up and down within them in the wake of their most recent contests. For example, when Maia defeated Neil Magny handily at UFC 190 he did not move from his number six rank. Given the win streak Magny was on and his performance of the night bonus, Maia felt slighted. "It was like people were discrediting the win, and I wasn't rewarded in the rankings by being active."
Fellow top-ten ranked welterweight Dong Hyun Kim also commented on the UFC rankings recently. In November he stated that Maia was the "easiest to beat" out of all top-ten welterweights. Maia's response: "Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. I rather focus on my career and what will move me forward."
Asked if a fight with Kim interested him, Maia stated, "Not at the moment, I'm interested in fighting for the belt, and if not, doing fights that will help me get there."
Maia, who fights out of Sao Paulo, may have to contend with an added obstacle as he tries to mount a championship-run, the trickle-down effect of Brazil's crushing economic crisis. Though he's not yet felt the crisis personally he is concerned for what it means for Brazilian sports in general. Maia points out that in times of financial woes corporations cut back - or cut completely - their sponsorship commitments. Maia claims MMA fighters, as well as top soccer clubs, have felt the pinch not only from the crisis, but also from the forthcoming Olympic Games (scheduled for Rio de Janeiro this summer). The Games had already pulled in sponsors that would otherwise have invested in MMA.
Despite the economic turmoil Maia is optimistic, "Brazil will rebound as a county."