To watch Demian Maia during the UFC 194 media day at MGM Grand on Wednesday was to see a man who is not just one of the classiest practitioners of mixed martial arts, but also one of the most honest.
So as he discussed his lifelong affiliation with all forms of martial arts, he revealed that as soon as he began studying jiu-jitsu, it was always with an eye toward fighting professionally. That meant his studies, particularly the college degree he picked up in journalism, probably wouldn’t be utilized. When this was pointed out to him, he laughed.
“I was always going to fight and I was always going to train to fight professionally, for sure,” he said. “But it (journalism) is something that I like. I try to keep my mind sharp and I read a lot.”
But after fielding question after question, some that have little, if anything, to do with the task at hand, does Maia think to himself, “I can do this better than these guys?”
“You guys did ask nice questions,” he said smiling. “But sometimes the questions are always the same. Like ‘What is the strategy for this fight?"
“For these, I know I can do better,” Maia added with a laugh. “But at the same time, I understand that for some media, you need that. You need to know, even if the answer will always be the same because nobody would say their strategy. I think I could do well. It's easy to say I can do better, but it's hard when you're there. It's the same way as fighting.”
Thoughtful with his answers and willing to spend the time to get his point across, Maia would probably make an excellent reporter or writer, but this week, he’ll be fighting. His UFC 194 bout against Gunnar Nelson is a diehard fan’s dream fight, simply because it pits two of the sport’s top jiu-jitsu black belts against each other.
For those aficionados of the “gentle art,” this is as good as it gets – as long as it goes to the ground. Maia doesn’t feel any pressure to give those fans a battle of submissions, simply because he knows that’s what they expect from him all the time.
“Every fight, people are looking to watch my ground game,” he said. “It doesn't matter who I'm going to fight. I think the pressure is because he (Nelson) is a very good fighter. He's a very good jiu-jitsu fighter, and like every fight, there is pressure. I'm at a point in my career where I can control the pressure better, but still, everybody feels it.”
Winner of three straight in the ultra-tough welterweight division, the 38-year-old Sao Paulo native is coming off his first submission win since 2012, an August Performance of the Night finish against Neil Magny. It was impressive not just because of the quality of his opposition, but because Maia went back to taking the risks necessary to finish off top-level foes.
It’s easy to forget that at middleweight, Maia won his first five UFC fights by submission. That was 2008-09. He wouldn’t finish a fight again until 2012, yet two bouts after submitting Rick Story, Maia was in one of those all-black belt bouts against Jake Shields, and he was trying to get his business done in a single round.
“There was a lot of technical stuff I learned from that fight, but I was very anxious to win that fight very fast,” Maia said. “And when the fight started, I engaged and went to his back and said 'Now I'm going to win in the first round.' It (the fight) was near my house for the first time, I was fighting in Sao Paulo with the crowd there and a lot of students from my academy, so I was like 'I want to win, I want to win in a special fashion.' And that was the mistake. After many years of experience, you can still make mistakes.”
Only the elite learn from them, though, and following the disputed split decision loss in Oct. of 2013, Maia engaged in a Fight of the Night battle with Rory MacDonald and defeated Alexander Yakovlev before losing nearly a year to a staph infection in his shoulder. When he returned, it was two more wins over LaFlare and Magny, and now it’s off to a showdown with Nelson that he’s eagerly anticipating.
“When I came back with LaFlare, I think I came back even more mature and the Neil Magny fight also,” he said. “I'm curious to see how I'll be on Saturday.”