"I’m a much better grappler than striker, so it just takes more time for me to get the striking, but it’s coming." - Demian Maia
Demian Maia isn’t scared anymore. Admittedly, the submission wizard approached his first few fights in the UFC with a single-minded purpose: get the fight to the ground and finish it before his opponent or the referee could stand it back up. Nothing more, nothing less.
“In the first fights, I was so nervous to stand up that when I took the guys down, I was doing everything and spending all my energy to submit them because I was afraid to get the fight stood up,” he said.
Early on, it worked like a charm. Five fights, five wins, five submissions of Ryan Jensen, Ed Herman, Jason MacDonald, Nate Quarry, and Chael Sonnen. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Nate Marquardt broke it, knocking Maia out in 21 seconds at UFC 102 in August of 2009. It was the Sao Paulo native’s first pro loss, and while he had been training the rest of his game all along, now he knew that he needed to step it up even more.
“My plan since I started in the UFC was to be champion one day, and I know that to be a champion, you need to develop everything that you can,” he said. “But when I first started in the UFC, I was very raw standup-wise and my game was basically jiu-jitsu. I almost didn’t have any boxing – I had three months of boxing training. But I knew it was something I needed to work on because I knew one day I would need it. So I started at that time and kept growing.”
In his next bout six months later, against Jersey-tough Dan Miller, Maia showed off the early stages of his evolution with a three round unanimous decision win. Fate would intervene next, when an injury to Vitor Belfort opened the door for Maia to step in and challenge countryman Anderson Silva for the middleweight title at UFC 112 in April of 2010.
If he hadn’t learned his standup lessons, it would have been a short night, but instead, Maia went the distance with the pound-for-pound king before losing a unanimous decision. It was far from a memorable bout because of Silva’s controversial showboating antics, but if you do look back at it, refer to Maia’s gutsy charges in the last two rounds as he went far away from his gameplan in an effort to turn the fight around and actually make a fight out of it.
“I think that was the most important fight of my life,” said Maia. “At the beginning, we had a strategy for the fight, me and my coaches. We were just gonna wait for him to come, and then shoot for the double or the single, or clinch for the takedown. But the problem was during the first three rounds, especially in the second round, he was controlling me very well with single jabs and single kicks, not combos. So it was very hard for me because he knows how to use his reach and his distance. But at one point I said my strategy’s not working and I was not able to clinch, so I said ‘okay, if I’m gonna lose, let’s try my best.’”
In terms of his career, it was a game changer.
“In that fight, I learned that sometimes you have a strategy, but when you feel it’s not working, you have to change, and you can’t just stay in that strategy. And after that I was pretty confident that I was fighting against the best fighter in the world, but I knew if I could have changed my strategy a little bit, I could have done much better.”
Despite his strong finish late, the negative connotations attached to the bout didn’t exactly earn him the credit he deserved. But in his mind, Maia had turned the corner as a fighter, and going five rounds with Silva didn’t hurt either.
“If I was a runner, I think I would be a long-distance runner, not like a 100 meter runner,” he said. “So for me, there was no problem going five rounds. I think I grow better during a fight, and it was a good experience, especially with the best fighter in the world.”
Thus began the road back, and since then, he has won two in a row, pounding out convincing, workmanlike decision wins over Mario Miranda and Kendall Grove. Saturday night in Vancouver, he looks for three in a row against his toughest foe since Silva, surging Mark Munoz.
“He’s a tough wrestler and an experienced athlete,” said Maia of ‘The Filipino Wrecking Machine.’ “He doesn’t have a lot of MMA fights but he has a lot of wrestling matches, so I think he’s a very experienced competitor. He also has very heavy hands.”
It’s a classic match of styles and one of the most highly-anticipated bouts on the UFC 131 card. Does Maia feel the weight of expectations on his shoulders?
“In the UFC, there’s always big pressure, it doesn’t matter who you fight,” he said. “When you fight in the biggest event in the world, with the biggest crowd, it’s always big pressure, but I know how to deal with that. It’s not a problem. For me, it’s just being prepared and ready for the fight. The rest I know how to deal with.”
And now he can say that he can not only deal with fellow jiu-jitsu fighters and wrestlers, but with strikers as well. It’s a pleasant development for the decorated BJJ black belt, who admits that he’s enjoyed the entire ride from one-dimensional submission artist to well-rounded MMA fighter.
“Because I love to train, I don’t think there’s any difficult part,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time. I’m a much better grappler than striker, so it just takes more time for me to get the striking, but it’s coming. I love this sport. I love to box, I love to wrestle, I love to grapple, so for me there are no hard things.”
What he will say though, and he says it with a smile, is that he’s been getting itchy to score his first submission win since the Sonnen fight in February of 2009. That’s more than two long years, and he’s feeling just about due.
“That (winning by submission) is what I want to do for sure and that’s something I’m looking for,” he said. “The thing is that I’ve been developing my standup game and I think something happened inside my mind. Now I’m much more relaxed when I go to the ground because if the fight gets stood up again, I will be able to fight standing up. But I know I will get the balance again and I will start to submit my opponents again.”