Tonight (Sat., Nov. 30, 2013) Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Lightweight contenders Gray Maynard and Nate Diaz will face off in the main even of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 18 Finale from Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The bout has quite the substantial backstory. Maynard and Diaz first locked horns as contestants on TUF 5 with Diaz taking home a submission win on his way to winning the contract. Maynard would have his revenge at UFC Fight Night 20, edging Diaz with a split decision to even the series at one apiece.
The rivalry is set to come to a conclusion tonight and it comes at a time when both fighters are in dire need of a statement win.
After an impressive 10-0 (1) start to his mixed martial arts (MMA) career, Maynard hasn't exactly been a world-beater the last three years. Since January 2011 Maynard's record sits at a relatively pedestrian 1-2-1. "Bully's" only win in that time span was a very lackluster decision over Clay Guida at UFC on FX 4 in June 2012.
That win was more a product of Guida's unwillingness to engage rather than anything else. Maynard's last fight, a first round knockout loss to surging T.J. Grant at UFC 160 this May, was even worse. If he wants to stay among the top 155-pound fighters in the world, he has to put a stamp on Diaz this evening.
Maynard's recent track record may sound bad, but Diaz' may be even worse. The TUF 5 winner last fought at UFC on Fox 7 this April, eating a vicious headkick from Josh Thomson en route to the first knockout loss of his career. Prior to that Diaz faced Benson Henderson for the Lightweight crown at UFC on Fox 5. He dropped a one-sided decision after "Smooth" manhandled him for the entirety of five rounds.
With such high stakes on the line, emotions will be running high at Mandalay Bay. Let's take a look at the keys to victory for Gray Maynard vs. Nate Diaz:
Record: 11-2-1 (1) overall, 9-2-1 (1) UFC
Key Wins: Nate Diaz (UFC Fight Night 20), Frankie Edgar (UFC Fight Night 13)
Key Losses: T.J. Grant (UFC 160), Frankie Edgar (UFC 136)
Keys to Victory: Number five-ranked Maynard is a three-time NCAA Division 1 All-American in wrestling who has lived up to his nickname of "Bully." Maynard earns his paycheck with top-level MMA takedowns and solid power on the feet. His career has been largely defined by his drawn-out rivalry with former UFC Lightweight champion Edgar.
Although he's teased a drop down to Featherweight for a fourth bout with Edgar, Maynard needs to remain focused on Diaz for the time being. To walk out of his trilogy with Diaz ahead, Maynard needs to keep his movement level high. Standing flat-footed in front of Diaz like he did against Grant will only get him picked apart on the feet.
Diaz will look to put forth a very high volume of quick punches to stymie Maynard's forward progress. Maynard may have the power advantage but he would be better served to score points with takedowns. If and when the fight hits the ground Maynard needs to keep a sharp eye out for Diaz' active guard and considerable submission repertoire.
Maynard has never tapped out, a testament to his grappling skills dating back to his time with Rashad Evans at Michigan State. This fight will most likely go to a decision if Maynard comes out on top. Nine of his 11 wins have gone to the judges' scorecards. The other two were knockouts, as were Maynard's only two losses. Diaz doesn't have the power that Grant does but he can end the fight standing if given the chance.
Maynard needs to prevent that with constant wrestling pressure.
If he can control where the fight goes by changing levels and dominating in the clinch, Maynard will add another quality win to his record. He'll also gain back some of the ground he's recently lost so this is a very telling bout for him.
Record: 16-9 overall, 11-7 UFC
Key Wins: Gray Maynard (TUF 5), Jim Miller (UFC on Fox 3), Donald Cerrone (UFC 141)
Key Losses: Gray Maynard (UFC Fight Night 20), Ben Henderson (UFC on Fox 5), Josh Thomson (UFC on Fox 7), Dong Hyun Kim (UFC 125), Rory MacDonald (UFC 129)
Keys to Victory: Number eight-ranked Diaz was on top of the world after his submission win over Jim Miller in May 2012. The victory earned him the title shot that marked the beginning of his current decline. In his losses to Henderson and Thomson, Diaz showed a pattern of problems with power wrestlers who bring striking to match.
Maynard is similar in terms of wrestling but he's going to be noticeably slower than "Smooth" or "Punk."
This will play into Diaz's hands in a big way. The Stockton native is well known for his quick hands. Staying in Maynard's face with combinations will be Diaz's main gameplan on the feet. His length will be instrumental in keeping the shorter Maynard at bay.
Diaz has been regarded for his iron chin but it took a big hit when Thomson floored him this April. He'll have to avoid Maynard's big hooks and uppercuts to get back on the winning track.
Should he get taken down Diaz will use his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt to look for a variety of potential submissions. It's a long shot at becoming the first man to ever submit Maynard, but Diaz's ground skills will be his way of preventing "Bully's" ground-and-pound.
Diaz is the owner of 11 submission victories. He might look to surprise by going to the ground with the stronger Maynard. However, a decision win will be his best bet of staying out of harm's way. Diaz doesn't want to get on the dreaded three-fight loss streak so he should focus on using his speed advantage to outland Maynard.
Bottom Line From Las Vegas: The bottom line here is that both Maynard and Diaz are fighting for their true relevancy in Las Vegas. The UFC Lightweight division is arguably one of the most stacked in all of MMA right now; therefore, another lackluster performance will have either fighter on thin ice in UFC.
Diaz has more pressure on his shoulders with a lower ranking and two straight losses. Three straight will most likely end his run as a true contender. Maynard may hover around the bottom of the top ten with a loss, but he'll quickly become a dark horse contender if he gets back into the win column in exciting fashion.
A lot of this fight is going to hinge on which version of Maynard shows up. He's appeared rather uninspired since his knockout loss to Edgar at UFC 136. If he shows up re-motivated to fight Diaz, Maynard has the tools and talent to put a harsh beating on his former TUF foil. On the other hand, continuing to show up lackadaisical will have many fans whispering that he's an overrated waste of talent.
This rivalry is poetic in that it's a trilogy-ending bout carrying so much meaning for the career paths of both combatants.
It's do-or-die time for Diaz and Maynard tonight. Which experienced Lightweight can show up and deliver a momentum-generating performance at TUF 18 Finale this evening?