Demian Maia is undoubtedly the greatest current representative of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu in MMA. Fighters like him, who successfully adapt a singular martial art into the sphere of MMA, are few and far between.
For fans of BJJ, each time Maia competes and wins is an occasion to acknowledge and confirm the relevancy of their martial art. For the casual MMA fan though the elite skill set of Maia is seen as utterly uninteresting and for that reason he, more than almost any other contender, has had to prove himself again and again. That infernal journey towards a title shot may however be coming to an end when Maia faces Jorge Masvidal at UFC 211 this Saturday.
The Jiu-jitsu Black Belt last fought for a title in 2010 (at middleweight) against then Champion Anderson Silva. His poor performance on that night combined with what ignorant spectators call a boring style has led to the reluctance of UFC officials to book him in headlining roles (he has main-evented only three of his last 16 fights). This hesitancy is in part based on the UFC’s business model, which caters to those casual fans who yearn for devastating knockouts and have no idea what a kimura is.
So while the BJJ community turns out to support Maia every time he fights they cannot hope to compete with the swarms of troglodytes that are attracted by a bit of Conor McGregor trash talk.
Although fan interest may not warrant a title-shot in this case, as it has in others, what does secure of competitor of Maia’s stature is continuing to beat elite fighters, and that is just what he has done. Taking into account the ineptitude of the UFC ranking system, Maia has beaten #12 Ryan LaFlare, #6 Neil Magny, #9 Gunnar Nelson, #14 Matt Brown, and #4 Carlos Condit (in that order). Should he put away Masvidal, ranked 5th , the UFC would be more or less forced to book him in a fight against Champion Tyron Woodley.
Maia’s biggest competitors for the belt are largely out of contention. Robbie Lawler is set to fight Cowboy Cerrone in July. Stephen Thompson is not getting a title-shot any time soon after his last performance and Condit has one foot out the door on a two-fight losing streak.
Unless GSP attempts to ruin Welterweight as he did Middleweight or the UFC is stupid enough to give the winner of Lawler/Cerrone a chance at Woodley (though either winner would only be 1-1 in their last 2), Maia will more or less secure a shot a Welterweight Gold with a win on Saturday night.
This is the last leg of Maia’s journey towards a title. At 39 years of age he likely won’t get another chance. So while the Brazilian could have conceivably been given an opportunity to fight for the belt earlier, to deny him after a win on Saturday would be unconscionable. That being said, a victory is far from a sure thing as the BJJ fighter faces Welterweight’s dark horse.
Masvidal has a lot of things going for him in this matchup. He is more active, fighting three times in 2016 and once in 2017 (January). Maia on the other hand has been stagnant. After his August victory over Condit he expressed his intention to wait for a title-fight (after all he did beat the man who at the time was the #1 or #2 Welterweight).
The UFC however refused to honor his request, booking Woodley/Thompson 2, which in hindsight was a terrible decision. Despite these extenuating circumstances Masvidal will come into Saturday’s bout four months removed from his last fight while Maia will be eight months removed from his win over Condit.
Although he sports a smaller win-streak (three to Maia’s six) “Gamebred’s” relative freshness will translate into a very real sense of confidence and momentum. More importantly though the ATT fighter will be bringing a unique set of tools into the octagon, ones that on paper make the fight extremely interesting. The Miami Native has much better stand-up than Maia, though that has been true for most of his opponents. Should the fight stay on the feet the Brazilian stands little chance at getting his hand raised. Masvidal also has excellent takedown defense and this skill will be the one that determines the outcome of the bout.
Unlike other singular martial arts fighters, who utilize many other martial arts in their MMA game, Maia is almost solely married to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He uses exemplary wrestling to get the fight to the mat and often strikes only when necessary, preferring instead to gently strangle his adversary. But if “The Human Backpack” is left standing with no victim to be wrapped around the fight changes drastically. This all or nothing narrative is one that characterizes all of his fights.
On Saturday the Cuban-American will attempt to make sure it is the latter that occurs. One should also note the size disparity between the two: Maia will sport at the very least a 15 lbs advantage over the ATT product (though the weight-cut may take a significant toll). This advantage in weight will play into Maia’s favor should he bring the fight to the mat but he will also be at a speed disadvantage as a result. Whether or not this size differential will mean a more evasive Masvidal or a more powerful and effective Maia is anyone’s guess.
Dallas, Texas plays host to the biggest UFC card of the year. As testament to the grandeur of this card, a fight that could headline a show on its own sits underneath the co-main event.
With a win this Saturday, Demian Maia is all but guaranteed a title shot, begrudgingly awarded by the UFC, but getting past Jorge Masvidal will be a feat in and of itself. The BJJ community is behind Maia once again and though that might not mean much to the UFC we know it means a hell of a lot to Maia.