Rising Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) welterweight Ryan LaFlare is set to take on the toughest test of his six-year mixed martial arts (MMA) career in Demian Maia at UFC Fight Night 62 tonight.
The undefeated 31-year-old from New York marches into Brazil for his fifth UFC fight and 12th of his professional career. LaFlare has dominated veteran welterweights such as Court McGee and John Howard, most recently. The profound grappler fights in Brazil for the second time, and has only fought in the states once.
"I rather have a match up that I like rather than fighting where I like to fight," LaFlare told MMAmania in February.
LaFlare asked for the Maia match up back in Dec. 2014 when he was on the mend from a summer surgery to repair his right ACL. Though he's had a long layoff between fights -- 11 months to be exact -- the Blackzilians standout is familiar with having too much time on his hands.
He was once out 2.5 years between fights prior to his UFC endeavors.
LaFlare's career began locally in Atlantic City, N.J., fighting for the Ring of Combat promotion. That's the same promotion where middleweight champion Chris Weidman and former lightweight titleholder Frankie Edgar got their starts.
The New York native wasted no time creating buzz for himself and totaled just three minutes and 57 seconds of cage time in his first two bouts. LaFlare submitted his first opponent, Radji Bryson-Barrett, with an armbar. He followed that up with an even more impressive win against Robert Cunane.
His fight with Cunane was nothing short of spectacular as it was just a short preview of better things to come for the future UFC fighter. LaFlare ragdolled his opponent around the cage like it was nobodies business and flattened him with punches in 79 seconds.
His next fight lasted a little bit longer. LaFlare fought Jose Sulsona in September 2009 at Ring of Combat 26, wearing him down before securing his second armbar victory in three opportunities.
With each passing fight, LaFlare was becoming more well-rounded. His striking was some sort of refined chaos; LaFlare is ultra aggressive and often switches stances. It's that aggressiveness that also helps him time takedowns.
His bread and butter, however, was his jiu-jitsu game. Through his first three professional fights, LaFlare slipped and passed the guards of his opponents at will, and was outgrowing his competition at a rapid pace.
That couldn't have been illustrated better by LaFlare in his next outing. Mark Berrocal felt the wrath of his smothering ground game just seconds into the pair's fight in November 2009. One quick takedown, and a few smooth guard passes later, spelled the end of Berrocal's night.
LaFlare conquered his next two opponents, Justin Haskins and Mike Medrano, without too much effort. His victory over the latter also brought him a championship and a call from the now-defunct fight promotion Strikeforce. Then injury came.
He tore his wrist in a bad car accident and his knee in training, and although it stopped his burgeoning MMA career, it didn't completely ground him.
"The entire time I'm learning, I didn't like, walk away from the game. I was coaching. I run a school in New York," said LaFlare.
Such a grueling process, and intense recovery, might have broken down weaker fighters, but LaFlare wouldn't let the injury destroy his career. He bounced back in a big way by returning to Ring of Combat to re-capture his 170-pound title for the second time in as many fights.
LaFlare trounced the heavy-hitting Andrew Osborne in his return fight, utilizing his swift wrestling game to stifle the stand-up specialist. He would later put an end to the onslaught by tapping Osborne with his third victory via armbar.
Following his second-title win, LaFlare's contract had been merged over to the UFC; a result of the companies' merger with Strikeforce. He was now fighting on the sports' biggest stage and he took full advantage of it.
LaFlare quickly got acquainted with his surroundings, dispatching the quartet of Ben Alloway, Santiago Ponzinibbio, McGee and Howard in his first four fights. The only thing missing was his finishing ability.
The former collegiate wrestler used all 60 minutes allotted to him. He pummeled, ran through, dominated -- any verb you can find to describe utter superiority over an adversary; LaFlare did it.
"I'm getting decisions in here but sometimes I think it's even harder to beat somebody by decision because you have to beat them for three, five-minute rounds," said LaFlare. "With a decision, I'm clearly winning these rounds. None of the fights were really that close."
Though he's currently ranked No. 14 in the UFC's welterweight division, he has been absent from the Octagon for over 11 months. With his return coming against a former world title challenger, and someone who's defeated top fighters like Jon Fitch and Dong Hyun Kim, some might say the deck is stacked against LaFlare.
The 37-year-old Maia is also coming off a long layoff, as well as a bout with a debilitating injury. He fought back a staph infection, as well as an infection in his right shoulder, towards the end of the summer.
Maia resumed training around the new year and is looking to reassert himself into the mix of elite 170-pound contenders. The jiu-jitsu black belt is capable of giving LaFlare fits.
Maia has recorded at least one takedown in each of his 13 UFC wins. When he's lost, it's been because of the wrestler opposite of him.
Jake Shields and Rory MacDonald stifled Maia's takedown attempts. When fighting at middleweight, Weidman and Mark Munoz proved to be the Brazilian's kryptonite.
To say that Maia is a one-trick pony is putting it lightly. He will desperately go for as many takedowns as he deems necessary in order to drag opponents into his world. His 30 percent accuracy on takedowns isn't very good.
LaFlare might only be purple-belt, but rank doesn't matter to him. The Florida-based LaFlare is confident he has the tools to take out one of the best grapplers in the entire UFC.
His rangy, athletic fighting style spells trouble for Maia. Not only is he quick, but he's technical. LaFlare is also very intelligent and is capable of changing levels at a moment's notice.
"I definitely don't plan on playing jiu-jitsu the entire time. People have a tough time getting in on me. I plan on exploiting him there too," LaFlare said. "You're going to see some new stuff from Ryan LaFlare in this fight that you haven't seen yet. Make sure you tune in."