Grappling aficionados Demian Maia and Ryan LaFlare lock horns in March


Wagner Carmo, Inovafoto

Ryan LaFlare is an exciting 31-year-old prospect in the UFC's welterweight division. LaFlare, who's undefeated at 11-0, made a career altering decision to train full-time at The Blackzilians camp in Boca Raton, Florida.

As LaFlare sets his sights on the returning Demian Maia at UFC Fight Night 62 in March, the No. 15-ranked 170-pounder prepares for the toughest test of his mixed martial arts career. He's also coming off of an undisclosed injury.

The New York native has blazed quite the trail in his four Octagon appearances, defeating The Ultimate Fighter Season 11 winner Court McGee and the heavy handed John "Doomsday" Howard, and it can be credited in-part due to his change in training environment.

"No disrespect to being in New York, but I only really had Costas Philippou to push me," LaFlare told MMAjunkie in April. "You get used to going with the same guy over and over, you know their tricks."

The undefeated ground specialist now has access to high-level training partners everywhere he looks; from former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans to Eddie Alvarez and Michael Johnson. LaFlare would split time training with The Blackzilians in South Florida when he made it onto the UFC scene in April 2013 but now he receives the added benefit of training full-time with some of the strongest, and successful, men to grace the Octagon.

LaFlare, standing at 6-foot-1, is larger than your average welterweight. His size and reach are two keys that have come into play throughout his UFC tenure.

After compiling seven straight victories in the Atlantic City, New Jersey-based promotion Ring of Combat, LaFlare took the Octagon, manhandling fighters such as Ben Alloway, Santiago Ponzinibbio and Howard en route to his pairing against the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Maia.

During his winning streak, the rising welterweight has enjoyed much success from the clinch, either landing a body lock takedown or knees. When he gets the fight to the ground, LaFlare, a BJJ purple belt, constantly works to improve his position and land devastating shots.

Not only is his clinch work very effective but the timing on his shot is as well. LaFlare, while not the most explosive athlete, does an excellent job of changing levels quickly. In addition to the flare he illuminates in his grappling, the Blackzilians up-and-comer is not too shabby on the feet either.

In four UFC appearances, LaFlare has deployed an efficient striking game plan, doubling up the amount of significant strikes he absorbs at two per outing, compared to the four he delivers. He also defends 64 percent of strikes sent his way.

However, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention that he did concede a takedown to Ben Alloway and Howard. McGee was credited with four against LaFlare. LaFlare could ill-afford to give up a takedown to one of the best BJJ practitioners in the world, in Maia, or he might just lose a limb.

The Brazilian has been on the shelf since a May victory over Alexander Yakolev. Maia had dealt with a staph infection, which gradually progressed to his right shoulder.

Since his debut at 170-lbs in July 2012, Maia went 4-2, earning notable wins over Dong Hyun Kim, Rick Story and Jon Fitch. While the Brazilian has been able to get by off of the strength of his decorated jiu-jitsu background, his achilles heel has remained his striking.

A southpaw, like LaFlare, Maia has been picked apart by the likes of current middleweight champion Chris Weidman and No. 2-ranked welterweight Rory MacDonald. His striking has come a long way but he uses it as only a prop to secure a takedown.

Whether he is on his back, or in top control, no one is safe from Maia's world-class jiu-jitsu. The 37-year-old has submitted wrestlers like Chael Sonnen and Rick Story with a triangle choke and rear-naked choke, respectively.

On the flip side, Maia is incredibly durable. He's only been finished once in his seven-plus year, Octagon career.

It will indeed be a matchup of two talented ground specialists when these two lock horns March 21 in Rio de Janeiro. LaFlare's skill level on the mat may be pretty good but it's not that of the jiu-jitsu world champion Maia.

Maia's takedown defense is decent — he defends them at 67 percent clip — so putting him on his back could prove to be a little difficult for LaFlare. He's also allowed just two takedowns since his stint at 170-pounds began. When on his back, he possesses an active guard, which renders him difficult to put away.

What LaFlare should be preparing for is already one of his strengths: the clinch. The Brazilian doesn't opt for a shot like a wrestler would but instead looks for takedowns via a trip or throw. LaFlare's experience should help him here.

LaFlare could find a path to a victory on the ground but it won't be easy to get there and it will be even more difficult to keep Maia on his back.

If he withstands a couple of takedown attempts from Maia, LaFlare may look to unload on the inefficient striker with all sorts of knees, kicks and looping hooks. However, the fact that he surrendered takedowns to mid-level opponents leaves much to be desired in the takedown defense department.

LaFlare receives a significant increase over the competition he has previously faced, in the form of a returning Maia, leading to what could be his first professional loss.

Prediction: Maia via split-decision

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