Two of the top ranked welterweight grapplers on the planet will square off this Saturday night (Feb. 2, 2013) as former title challengers Jon Fitch and Demian Maia meet on the UFC 156 main card in Las Vegas, Nevada.
After suffering just the second loss of his over seven year UFC career, Fitch returned in rare form against rising star Erick Silva in hostile territory, beating up the Brazilian in front of his hometown fans to not only bounce back, but also take home his second "Fight of the Night" bonus.
Demian Maia was in a quagmire at middleweight, unable to gain ground and already holding a loss to the champion and a drop to 170 pounds has rejuvenated his career. The extremely talented Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt has gone 2-0 since making the cut and is hoping to enter title contention if he can knock Fitch down a peg or two.
Will Fitch be able to enter the submission master's web without getting tapped? Can Maia outgrapple one of the best grinders in mixed martial arts? What's the key to victory for both men.
Record: 24-4-1 (1 No Contest) overall, 14-2-1 in the UFC
How he got here: Fitch has been a staple of the UFC welterweight division for over seven years now. A former team captain of the Purdue wrestling squad after walking on to the team, Fitch entered the UFC with a 10-2 record with one no contest and proceeded to win eight straight including notable victories over the likes of Thiago Alves and Diego Sanchez to earn a shot at Georges St. Pierre and the welterweight title.
Fitch would display his heart and toughness over the course of five rounds, but he was thoroughly beaten by the champion in a largely one-sided affair. Since losing his shot at UFC gold, Fitch has gone to six straight decisions, notably defeating Paulo Thiago, Ben Saunders and Thiago Alves (again) to return to top contender status before drawing with B.J. Penn.
While training for a rematch with Penn, Fitch injured his shoulder and was sidelined for much of 2011. When he finally returned, he looked a bit sluggish and paid for it dearly, getting knocked out by rising star Johny Hendricks in just 12 seconds last December.
After taking 10 months off to recover from some more injuries, the AKA stalwart returned in rare form, cruising past top prospect Erick Silva in a wildly entertaining bout to put himself firmly back in the mix among the best welterweights. Now, he's out to halt another Brazilian's momentum in Maia.
How he gets it done: This will be the most dangerous submission fighter that Fitch has ever fought, but he should have confidence in his skills. If he can get inside in the clinch, expect repeated attempts to drag Maia to the ground or even simply dropping down for a single or double leg takedown. Fitch is a relatively competent striker, but if he can gain top control on the ground, he'll be in good position to secure an advantage.
From top control, Fitch is relentless, even if he doesn't pass guard. The American Kickboxing Academy fighter has a very strong ground and pound attack from full guard if his opponent is playing defense well and he'll only pass if it's safe to do so. He's got a great motor and is only going to get stronger as the fight heads into the later rounds.
They key for Fitch is to not leave any space whatsoever as Maia is very good at working off his back with some nasty sweeps and submission attempts. Fitch will have to time all of his attacks well or he could leave an opening to have to go on the defensive, which is something he almost never has to do in his fights.
Record: 17-4 overall, 11-4 in the UFC
How he got here: No one made a brighter entrance to the UFC than Demian Maia. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu phenom made his UFC debut in 2007 and submitted his first five opponents with four of those finishes earning him the "Submission of the Night" award.
He capped off his streak by slaying current title challenger Chael Sonnen with an easy takedown-into-mount-into-triangle choke transition that had grappling fans raving.
His momentum was sent to a screeching halt after Nate Marquardt blasted him with one punch just 21 seconds into their UFC 102 fight but after rebounding with a decision victory over the always-tough Dan Miller, Maia was awarded a title shot against Anderson Silva as a replacement for the injured Vitor Belfort.
The title fight with Silva was an unmitigated disaster. The seemingly indifferent champion taunted and danced his way to a victory although Maia earned some respect for his performance in the final two rounds, not giving up, aggressively pushing forwards and arguably winning them on a few judges' scorecards.
Maia got back on track with consecutive decision victories over fellow esteemed grapplers Mario Miranda and Kendall Grove but has his momentum halted in one of 2011's closest fights, losing a very hard-fought decision to Mark Munoz at UFC 131. The former ADCC world champion again bounced back against Jorge Santiago at UFC 136, winning a decision primarily with top control in a fight where his opponent was more interested in surviving the full 15 minutes than winning.
Maia was a complete trainwreck against Chris Wiedman, unable to get anything going in an ugly loss and afterwards, he announced he'd be dropping down to 170 pounds. He's looked phenomenal at welterweight, finishing both Dong Hyun Kim and Rick Story inside the first round. Now, he's hoping that momentum carries him into a stellar showing against the always tough and durable Jon Fitch.
How he gets it done: Maia has gone great lengths to improve his striking since the Marquardt knockout, but despite that, he's still not dangerous on his feet. He's been able to win striking battles due to improved footwork and technique but that's also been because he's had opponents on the defensive due to his Brazilian jiu-jitsu acumen.
Opponents stopped taking his striking as seriously when he went away from his bread and butter (his jiu-jitsu) but after his last two fights, Fitch will definitely be on guard against the ground attacks..
This could leave an opening for Maia to bring back his stand-up. Jon Fitch isn't the type of fighter with one punch knockout power so he doesn't have that much to fear from him on the feet. While Maia's technique isn't amazing, he's at least competent now and that could be enough to outpoint the AKA standout to a decision.
If and when the fight goes to the ground, however, Maia needs to attack at all times. He can't hold Fitch and hope for a stand-up because Fitch is amazing at staying active enough to keep a fight on the canvas once he's taken it there. Look instead for Maia to constantly be throwing his legs up looking for either a submission, a sweep or simply to escape back to his feet. Fitch is probably one of the hardest fighters in the UFC to tap out so it won't be easy.
Instead, Maia should focus on trying to gain an advantageous position, which is probably more important in a fight against one of the best and more relentless MMA wrestlers today.
Fight X-Factor: The biggest X-Factor for this fight has to be positioning. When you've got two elite grapplers, the fight will almost always come down to who can stay on top the longest. Jon Fitch, being a tremendous wrestler and one of the best smothering top control fighters in the world. He'll be doing everything in his power to gain the superior top position while Maia tries to thwart him or gain the position himself. It will be very interesting to see who is better at using their opponent's momentum against them or perhaps who is better at using their own bodies as leverage.
The battle between two of the best in the world at their respective grappling arts is going to be fascinating to watch play out.
Bottom Line: This fight has potential to be one of the more entertaining ground battles we've seen in ages. It also could be an absolute snoozer. How that plays out is up to both combatants and what risks they're willing to take to try and win this fight. They might instead try to play it safe. Fitch has ground out some pretty lackluster wins in his career and don't forget what Maia did to Jorge Santiago, staying inside his guard for three rounds without really passing. If that happens, the fight could be pretty dull, but hopefully, they're both willing to create exciting grappling exchanges and scrambles.
Who will come out on top at UFC 156? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!