Maia’s risk leading to reward

A few years ago, Demian Maia was a middleweight with a poor striking game who managed to get all the way to a title fight before losing. After making changes, he’s on the doorstep of a second opportunity at gold when he faces Jake Shields at UFC Fight Night on Wednesday night.

At some point, it just came to Maia like a bolt of lighting, like one of his transitions to armbar. Fast and threatening, the truth of what he was hit him. He couldn’t ignore it any longer. He was a poor striker, far below the standard that had been set in the Octagon. This in a day and age where everyone must be at least proficient at everything. On the ground, he was different. On the Octagon mat, he was peerless. He was a shark among goldfish. But on his feet, where every fight starts and many of them stay, he needed work. A lot of it.

Coming from the proud world of jiu-jitsu, where many of its best still believe their gentle art is a complete combat system — see Royce Gracie’s recent comments for proof — this came as something of a eureka moment.

“If you want to be the champ, you realize all the champions are special at something but they’re good at everything,” he told FOX Sports a week before his UFC Fight Night main event matchup with Jake Shields. “If I want to be a champion, of course I am a specialist at BJJ, but I have to be good at everything. I always train thinking about becoming a champ. At the same time, when I was doing that, we only have a few hours of training each day. You need to focus on something. At that time it was my choice to focus on striking. I realized it was important to my career even if I was not doing so well sometimes in the octagon.”

Sacrificing some short-term success for long-term goals is a risky play in professional athletics, perhaps the most pressure-filled job in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world. In MMA for example, it’s not unusual to see wrestlers fall in love with throwing their hands and get away from the strength that probably got them to the big leagues. Even then, while they may change public perception of their style and excitement output, success does not always follow. Sometimes, they fall out of overall balance. Other times, their primary strength degrades.

This was the chance that Maia (18-4) was taking, all while already giving up the advantage of size. For most of his career, the Brazilian had such an easy time of making 185 pounds that he paid almost no attention to his diet until the week leading up to the fight.

It was only after losing to Chris Weidman that he finally made the downward shift to 170. These days, he adjusts his diet from nine weeks out, starting from around 200 pounds down to the welterweight limit. The early returns have been promising; Maia has been dominant with three straight wins, including a victory over longtime contender Jon Fitch in his last fight.

In Shields (28-6-1, 1 no contest), he is facing an opponent who like him, is known primarily for his grappling. A former Strikeforce champion, Shields is relentless on his takedowns and has a smothering top game, not far off from Maia, who is more decorated in international jiu-jitsu competition.

Often in such matchups, a striking match ensues as like skills cancel out. Maia doesn’t think that’s much of a likelihood here. That’s partly because as he transitioned to welterweight, he also returned his focus to his jiu-jitsu, and partially because he’s not overly interested in facing Shields’ unorthodox striking style.

In fact, while Maia’s standup improvements have been lauded, he told FOX Sports that didn’t see any advantage for himself against Shields’ much criticized game.

“It’s very hard because he has a very different style,” he said. “Sometimes he looks kind of awkward but at the same time he was able to win against great standup fighters. So even if sometimes he looks awkward for the cameras, he has an efficient striking game. So I don’t feel I’m better than he is. When you fight somebody like Shields, it’s not comfortable to fight him standing up.”

It’s hard to imagine that in a five-round fight, the match will be decided anywhere but the ground. To Maia, there is no element of pride in beating or finishing another black belt on the mat. There is no mandate to continually prove he’s the Octagon’s best grappler, even against an opponent who might want to make the same claim.

“I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t have this kind of ego. The only thing that matters for me is to win the fight. It doesn’t matter how.”

A victory would give him four straight in a division where he’s already ranked at No. 4. That means there would be little in the way between him and a possible chance to fight for the belt. Maybe the Carlos Condit-Matt Brown winner? Maybe Rory MacDonald, who has continually said he does not want to fight his teammate, champion Georges St-Pierre? There really isn’t much else.

That speculation is something Maia tries to avoid for now, even if he carefully plotted his way here. He put his jiu-jitsu aside a few years ago specifically to put himself in this position today. Even going through the hard times when he lost or simply looked lost on his feet, he feels he’s a more complete fighter today than ever.

He tries to avoid looking too far ahead, but that has always been the goal, after all. He said it himself, that he trains with the thought of becoming a champion. So who does he want to face?

“I think St-Pierre is maybe the hardest champion to beat in all divisions,” he said. “With his strategic gaming, he’s the hardest one to beat of any fighter in the UFC. Of course, I want to [fight him].”