Grappling master, Demian Maia, is set to do battle with long-time Welterweight contender and Muay Thai specialist, Carlos Condit, this Saturday (Aug. 27, 2016) night in the main event of UFC on FOX 21, which takes place inside Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Maia dropped down to 170 pounds back in 2012 and stormed out of the gate, stopping a pair of top foes and utterly dominating Jon Fitch. Maia found himself very close to a title shot, but unfortunately for him, the Brazilian dropped his next two in a pair of competitive decisions.
Not long after, Maia suffered some injuries, and most expected the older veteran to fizzle out a bit. Instead, he’s racked up five straight wins, including multiple victories among Top 10-ranked opposition. Now, firmly back in the Top 5, Maia looks to potentially earn his second shot at UFC gold. Let’s take a look at the 38-year-old’s skill set.
Back when Maia was a Middleweight, he relied almost entirely upon his Brazilian jiu-jitsu and ran through most of the division. However, his lack of striking experience also led to a 21-second knockout loss to Nate Marquardt way back in 2009, which caused Maia to focus on his striking. While that did lead to the unfortunate era of "K-1 Maia" — in which he tried to strike far too often — it also helped him improve his game quite a bit.
Maia’s kickboxing game is fairly simple, but he’s learned how to be aggressive and stay in the pocket far better. Those don’t necessarily sound like good attributes in keeping a grappling specialist safe, but it’s better than being afraid of exchanges. Plus, the threat of the takedown makes it difficult for Maia’s foes to plant their feet and throw, allowing Maia to land more effectively on a defensive opponent.
For the most part, Maia strikes like a pretty standard Southpaw. Until he fires the left, his right hand is used to reach out and touch his opponent’s lead hand, lining up the left (GIF). Maia does have the habit of leaning into his crosses, which can leave him vulnerable to the counter but also allows Maia to punch into the clinch or slide into his single leg takedown.
Despite his grappling background, Maia is more than willing to come forward with hard combinations. Frequently mixing his clubbing right hook with his straight left hand (GIF), Maia's punches are dangerous enough. They may be a bit ugly at times, but Maia forces even respected strikers like Rory MacDonald and Gunnar Nelson to watch out for his hands (GIF).
Additionally, Maia takes advantage of his Southpaw stance with the occasional power roundhouse kick. Since his foe is usually in the opposite stance, this is a simple but effective technique for an aggressive fighter. Plus, it’s not like he’s worried about getting taken down off the kick.
Defensively, Maia still has some issues. Since he’s so aggressive, he definitely can leave himself open to counter. Plus, once he’s tired, any real defense tends to go out the window, as Maia simply covers up tight and backs up.
The ability to land the takedown is obviously very important for an submission ace, and Maia has mastered his own terrifyingly effective brand of takedown. He has a lot of experience in Judo, which accounts for some of his clinch work, but his wrestling prowess has as much to do with his jiu-jitsu as anything else.
Maia has a number of tricks up his arsenal, but a number of them revolve around the single leg takedown. Once in on the shot, Maia will waste little time in attempting a dump.
When Maia is trying to dump or trip his opponent to the mat, there is something that separates him from most fighters: a complete lack of concern with being on his back. While trying to finish the shot, Maia will completely throw his weight behind the move, either finishing the takedown or landing on his back.
If he ends up on his back, Maia uses his amazing combinations of guard play — more on that later — to secure an underhook and sit back up into the single leg, giving him another chance to finish the shot.
Should the dump/trip fail, Maia will also look to come up into the clinch. Usually, Maia looks to dig an underhook and throw it by, taking his opponent’s back. If that happens, Maia will quickly look to jump on his foe’s back (GIF).
Between his dump, trips, and circling to the back off the shot, Maia creates an endless chain of transitions that always end with him working towards back mount. It simply overwhelms most of his opponents (GIF), as they may manage to outmaneuver him for a couple moves but soon end up with Maia in a dominant position.
Besides his usual work toward the back clinch, Maia is aggressive with inside and outside trips and foot sweeps. Maia does a nice job of tripping his opponent off-balance and then quickly changing levels into a shot. While talking about Maia’s clinch work, his slick trip of Sonnen is a must mention. Sonnen had no interest in grappling with the jiu-jitsu ace, and he quickly secured double underhooks on the Brazilian in order to keep his opponent away from the takedown. Instead, Maia reversed his opponent’s pressure with a lateral drop, and he landed directly in a submission hold (GIF).
Maia is a fourth degree black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and is about as decorated a practitioner as any inside the UFC. Most notably, Maia is an Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) gold medalist and Pan-Am champion. Maia's jiu-jitsu knowledge is incredibly deep -- he's technically excellent with moves he rarely relies on -- so I'll stick with what he relies on the most.
Since Maia's recent focus has been his top game, the ability to control his opponent is vital. When Maia takes his opponent down, he doesn't stay super tight. Instead, he'll look to pass his guard immediately, often by hopping over the leg(s).
The main pass Maia relies on is the smash pass, which he’s used on damn near every fighter he’s taken down in the last few years. Due to the way Maia carries his posture and how he intends to pass, it’s very difficult for Maia’s opponent to utilize anything but an open guard. As his foe looks to create space and elevate the leg, Maia opens his knee wide and then cuts inward, pinning pinning his foe’s hips and legs to the mat (GIF). Once there, Maia applies heavy top pressure, slowing easing his way into the full mount (GIF).
Once Maia begins passing, his opponent can either choose to give up side control or attempt to explode to his feet. If he chooses the latter, Maia will more than likely transition to his back in the ensuing scramble.
Even if Maia's opponent chooses side control, he'll still force his way to his back. Just about all top-level jiu-jitsu fighters compete with the intent of taking the back, as it’s far and away the most effective position in jiu-jitsu. A skilled grappler can safely control, damage and eventually finish his opponent from the back mount.
Maia is already an extraordinary grappler, but he's especially great from the back. In MMA, he's shown that he loves to use the body triangle. When he combines this with his upper body control, Maia's back mount becomes incredibly difficult to escape. Additionally, Maia is able to control the upper body even if he loses the body triangle and his opponent stands up, leading him right into a takedown that lands him on his opponent's back once again.
Maia's ability to get the choke relies mostly on his opponent's attempts to get out of his back control. If his opponent has poor defense or is hyper aggressive, Maia will find the neck. If his opponent remains calm and slowly tries to work out, Maia will ride them until the end of the round or an opportunity arises. There's always a chance he'll just crank the choke as well, a trick he pulled out against Rick Story (GIF).
Maia’s bottom game has changed quite a bit over the years. While he used to hunt for his triangle choke and other submissions, he now focuses on sweeping. He mostly attacks from the butterfly and half guard, positions that favor reversals rather than finishes. Once Maia has an underhook, he'll begin elevating his opponent, which allows him to either sit up into the underhook and try to escape out the back door (GIF). Either way, these movements destabilize his foe causes, allowing Maia to come up on a single leg attempt, body lock, or back mount (GIF).
Once again, Maia is back in the takedown chain he’s mastered.
Despite the change of strategy, Maia’s triangle choke should still be mentioned. His technique here is not anything crazy, as Maia mostly just looks to shove one of his opponent's arms through his legs. However, he times it well, often looking for the submission when his opponent's posture is broken or if his opponent is trying to pass. Once Maia locks in the choke, his squeeze is extremely tight, and Maia will roll his foe into mount to finish as well (GIF).
Maia has consistently been a top contender since 2008. And he was already 30 years old with a vast array of grappling medals back then. Simply put, he’s nearing the end of his road, even if he is still a tremendously dangerous fighter. Unless Maia can overwhelm Condit — and either finish or survive until the final bell — his hopes of becoming a champion are likely up.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an undefeated amateur fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.