"MMA in Brazil has changed a lot since those days. It's amazing the level the sport has got to here." - Demian Maia
There are no easy fights in the UFC. Welterweight Demian Maia will be the first to agree to that statement. But it may be a safe bet to say that when he meets Rick Story in UFC 153’s main card opener this Saturday night, it will be a lot easier than the last time he fought in his native Brazil in 2006.
That night, on October 7, 2006, Maia didn’t just fight once. He fought three times, winning the Super Challenge tournament with wins over Vitelmo Kubis Bandeira, Gustavo Machado, and Fabio Nascimento. That’s old school MMA right there.
“I remember it very well, and it was a great moment in my career back then,” said Maia. “Super Challenge was a one night, old style tournament with eight of the toughest 185-pound fighters in Brazil, and I was the big underdog. I had very little MMA experience and there were guys in the brackets with lots of fights and some with striking experience like Gustavo "Ximu", Fabio Nascimento, Katel Kubis, Alexandre "Cacareco" and others. I did my homework and was able to win three fights and became the champion. It was very important because that caught a lot of attention from promoters abroad and made certain that MMA was something I would follow seriously as an career.”
2-0 entering the tournament, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt left Rio de Janeiro that night with a 5-0 record, and seven months later, he was making his United States debut, defeating Ryan Stout in May of 2007. His next stop, in October of that year, was the UFC, and he has been here ever since. Where he hasn’t been, at least in a UFC fight, has been Brazil, something that will change this weekend.
“It's a big pleasure and something I wanted to do a lot, and I always tried not to worry about it because I figured it would happen sooner or later,” said Maia. “I'm happy it's happening now, but I’ve got to keep focusing on the fight and realize that, in the end, it's another fight like it would be anywhere else in the world. When you go into the cage, it's you against your opponent and both are gonna do their best, so you can’t let the rest affect you one way or another.”
That’s what you would expect any fighter to say, but Maia knows that this isn’t just another fight. And having been in the crowd for the UFC 134 event in Rio, he’s experienced what should be the most intense atmosphere he will ever fight in.
“I have friends who have competed in the UFCs in Brazil and people on my team that had fighters fighting in Brazil for the UFC,” he said. “The first UFC RIO was very big, and I was there watching it and supporting my friends, and I remember how crazy it was. All my friends that fought there like Minotauro (Nogueira) and Shogun (Rua) told me it was an amazing experience, and it was funny, but at UFC 148 in Las Vegas there were so many Brazilians it kind of already felt different. (Laughs) But like I said, the reality is that you can't think too much about it because a fight is a fight, and you’ve got to keep focus on what really matters. All the rest is great after the fight.”
Fair enough, but one thing that Maia will certainly agree with is that in the six years since he competed in his home country, MMA is seen a lot differently than it used to be.
“MMA in Brazil has changed a lot since those days,” he said. “It's amazing the level the sport has got to here. Back then, people perceived MMA as a bad thing, pure violence and not a true sport. The mainstream would pretty much ignore it or just cover any bad aspect related to it. In the last two years or so, with the UFC investing a lot in Brazil and bringing the show here, the sport skyrocketed and it became one of the most popular and most covered sports in the country, only behind soccer.”
And one of the country’s top exports has been Maia, a longtime middleweight contender who even extended Saturday’s headliner, Anderson Silva, the full five round championship distance in their 2010 bout. But after that bout, wins over Mario Miranda, Kendall Grove, and Jorge Santiago were almost equaled by losses to Mark Munoz and Chris Weidman, and Maia realized that he was giving up more advantages than he was getting on fight night when it came to size.
So earlier this year he dropped 15 pounds to welterweight, and in less than a minute he made quite the entrance, stopping Dong Hyun Kim in 47 seconds at UFC 148 in July.
“That was a very important fight, as they all are in the end,” he said. “Not only in the fight itself, but during training as well, I felt that I was able to keep the same strength I had, yet I became more agile and faster due to being lighter. I felt as strong as my opponent.”
And perhaps even more important than winning his welterweight debut was the way he did it, by scoring his first finish since submitted Chael Sonnen at UFC 95 in February of 2009. When it was over, the picture of Maia’s smile said a thousand words.
“It felt great,” he said. “There's so much pressure involved in all aspects when you go to a big fight like this, so when you are able to win the fight early it just feels incredible. With so much hard work that we all put into our training, one way or another you feel that what you planned made sense.”
That feeling was so good that Maia admits that moving to welterweight was a choice he perhaps should have made a long time ago.
“It's tough to say, because life is complicated and things lead you to another, and in the past I fought for the belt at 185 pounds and had some good wins, so it didn't seem that it was needed so much. However, when you come to think of it, in my first fights in the UFC I was making weight at 185 pounds and fighting on the following night at 190 pounds at most, as this was my natural weight and I was performing well. A lot of the top guys at 185 pounds weigh about 205 pounds or more by fight time, so I was giving away too much size and strength in theory. I think with the high level our sport has reached, welterweight is really my right weight class.”
The Kim fight made plenty of believers in that statement, and even more will come on board if he scores another win against Story this weekend. It’s an interesting matchup, with Story similar to Kim in strength, while packing even more power in his punches. Sao Paulo’s Maia knows that his return to Brazil isn’t coming with a gift-wrapped opponent, but he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Rick Story presents all sorts of difficulties,” he said. “He is a very tough fighter, a guy that you can clearly see that loves to fight and compete, and is well skilled in all areas, plus he is very aggressive. He has proved how good he is with wins against top fighters.”
So has Demian Maia, and if you’re looking for an intangible that could prove to be a deciding factor in the fight, it may just be that Maia simply can’t fathom losing in Brazil. Not Saturday, not ever. But he’ll save his talking about that for the Octagon.
“UFC has become one of the biggest overall shows in the world, and I'm not talking about fighting only, but in terms of sports and entertainment,” said Maia. “This card has a lot of tough and talented fighters, and I'm fighting a very tough opponent in Rick Story. I have trained hard and I'm sure he has too, so it will be a great fight and a great show.”