When Demian Maia fights, there are only two questions: 1) What submission will his opponent eventually succumb to?; and 2) How fast will it happen?
That’s how the majority of the world-class grappler and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu champion’s fighting career has gone. He just gets the submission and does it as fast as possible.
Think of it as if an octopus eventually gets ahold of its prey and completely neutralizes every defensive mechanism en route to forcing its victim to submit to strangulation. Maia has an incredible ability to not only get the takedown in a crafty way, but to gain the dominant position and essentially trap every single arm and leg that is fighting him off. Then, of course, comes the submission.
It’s really an incredible thing to watch how much he makes an example out of some of his opponents. He’s leaps and bounds ahead of even some of the more talented grapplers in the sport. However, putting this all aside, the one main flaw in Maia’s game is undoubtedly his striking and stand-up ability. That’s not to say he’s one of the worst strikers in MMA, but it’s not something any of his opponents really have to worry about. To be fair, it’s probably one part of his game that has improved the most, but it’s definitely still lacking.
The question now becomes, what can Maia do when he starts facing the elite of the elite in the welterweight division, many of whom have incredible striking? We’re talking about guys like Tyron Woodley, Robbie Lawler, Stephen Thompson, Albert Tumenov, Thiago Alves, Donald Cerrone, Lorenz Larkin and Dong Hyun Kim. We can even throw in Johny Hendricks and Tarec Saffiedine as well. This is a weight class that is probably the second toughest, behind the absolutely stacked lightweight division.
I should point out, of course, that there is one fighter I purposely left out of the above list: Carlos Condit. The reason is simple: Maia fought the former two-time title challenger at UFC on Fox 21 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, last weekend and it wasn’t pretty — well, for Condit, anyway.
Maia absolutely dominated Condit, submitting him in less than two minutes. It was a completely one-sided affair, and frankly a shockingly bad performance for the Jackson-Winkeljohn product, who was also the WEC welterweight champ at one point many years ago. This is a big feather in the cap for Maia, who asked for a title shot right after his win.
With another impressive victory, Maia is now right in the thick of the title picture. Now, the conversation turns to whether he will be able to compete against the aforementioned plethora of great strikers.
First, there’s Stephen Thompson.
Thompson is a guy who has world-class striking technique and the ability to knock out guys when they least expect it. He never telegraphs his strikes. He never overexerts himself to the point that he tries to take his opponent’s head off, either. He just hops around, light on his feet, and hits his opponent with something out of nowhere, most notably his left high kick.
This is potentially a serious problem for Maia, because, as we all know, every fight starts on the feet. Maia’s ability to get it down to the ground needs to be as world-class as his actual ability on the ground. The one upside for Maia is that Thompson is obviously nowhere near his level when it comes to the ground game. That’s no secret. However, it’s safe to say Thompson has scouted on when Maia will shoot for the takedown and he can probably estimate when it’s the exact right time to catch Maia with the perfect shot before the Brazilian is able to get the takedown.
Beyond Thompson, there’s also the champ, Tyron Woodley.
Not only is Woodley incredibly athletic, but he can blast opponents with one shot and they’ll be seeing stars in no time (see: Robbie Lawler). Furthermore, he can land a double leg on his opponent like nobody’s business, which is why he’s a two-time NCAA Division I All-American wrestler. He even came in as runner-up in the U.S. Freestyle Wrestling Championship as an amateur. He’s the UFC champion now and was a championship contender during his time in Strikeforce.
The thing to consider here is how many different tools Woodley can use to win a fight and how well he can do these things. Maia will be superior on the ground, but that doesn’t mean that part of his game can’t be neutralized when facing a great striker or a strong wrestler/grappler, a description that sums up Woodley perfectly.
Thompson and Woodley are the two potential opponents who have the best chance to neutralize Maia’s game plan.
It would be nice to have someone go up against the Brazilian that is as highly regarded of a grappler as him. It has happened before — UFC veteran Jake Shields defeated Maia — but those chances don’t come very often. Besides, a fighter who is just a grappler taking on Maia won’t create much of an exciting fight. It won’t have the appeal of Maia against Thompson or Woodley, because the latter set of fighters can be a threat to him in other areas just as much as he’s a threat to them in one area.
We just don’t know if that one threat in Maia’s arsenal will really be overwhelming enough against fighters that know what to expect from his strategy. That’s why his striking game needs to greatly improve. If it doesn’t, he comes off as far too predictable.
Remember Maia’s infamous 2010 fight against former UFC middleweight champion and MMA legend Anderson Silva? Maia had absolutely nothing to offer on the feet against someone with the striking accolades of “The Spider.” It got to the point where Silva was clowning Maia and toying with him as Maia kept diving for takedowns for nearly the whole 25 minutes. It was a pretty ugly fight and a terrible main event. Luckily, Maia is a much improved mixed martial artist now, but he’s not going to put fear in the hearts and minds of anybody unless he can get on top of them.
Maia will probably have to fight one more time and win to get a title shot, just based on the current circumstances in the division. It looks like the aforementioned Thompson is next in line for a title bid. He’s the No. 1 contender waiting in the wings.
Maia, with his victory over Condit, might end up facing Robbie Lawler, who failed to retain the title against Woodley. If it’s not Lawler, then perhaps the UFC will go with an alternative like the aforementioned Cerrone, Kim or Kelvin Gastelum.
Cerrone will be the best guy to bring the fight directly to Maia while not being a slouch on the ground. Not only is he an amazing striker with deadly kicks, but he’s also very talented with his jiu-jitsu. It would be unlikely that he’d allow himself to be submitted, even by Maia, but he also won’t get the submission. That doesn’t mean he won’t get dominated, though. Either way, it would be an entertaining fight because of what it can offer for fans and the fighters alike.
The possibilities at welterweight are fascinating at this point. And with Maia’s resurgence, he can give any contender a run for their money. This includes the elite strikers.