Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) gold medalist and recent title challenger, Demian Maia, will face off with hard-hitting wrestler, Kamaru Usman, this Saturday (May 19, 2018) at UFC Fight Night 129 inside Movistar Arena in Santiago, Chile.
Back in 2014, Maia suffered a second consecutive loss that seemed to end his title dreams. Instead, the then-37-year-old went on a career-best win streak, soundly out-grappling seven straight opponents and scoring three submission victories along the way. Maia earned his second title shot, but the end result was a boring title loss to Tyron Woodley. Last October, Maia attempted to return to the win column by taking on rising contender Colby Covington. The Division I All-American collegiate wrestler drew Maia into a brawl, causing the Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace to forget his vaunted wrestling until fatigue set in. On Saturday, Maia will look to avoid a similar fate against an even more powerful up-and-coming wrestler.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Maia’s kickboxing is an interesting topic. It was completely ignored until Nate Marquardt knocked him out back in 2009, at which point Maia spent the next few years striking way too much. That period was ugly, but did help develop Maia’s striking skill, although at times Maia still struggles deciding when to strike and when to shoot.
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). In addition, 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.
He may have struck a bit too much for my liking, but Maia’s hands looked rather sharp opposite Covington. Part of that was Covington’s strategy of getting in Maia’s face and being there to get hit, but Maia stung him with some nice left hands and a repeated dipping jab.
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. More specifically, the 40-year-old combatant really does not like low kicks at this point in his career. It’s hard to say if it’s because of his stance or previous injuries, but Maia’s leg was kicked way out of place repeatedly by Jorge Masvidal and Covington.
Maia’s takedown game is a tremendous mix of wrestling, Judo, and jiu-jitsu techniques and strategy. It’s easy to laugh off his wrestling game now that a pair of incredibly decorated wrestlers have stuffed all his shots in consecutive fights, but Maia has been a top-ranked contender for 10 years for a reason.
Maia has several 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. This willingness to land on the bottom is pretty unique, and it’s something we talk about in this week’s technique highlight.
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).
In Maia’s last two fights, his takedowns did fail him against masterful wrestlers. In the Woodley fight, it was a case of Woodley being strong as hell and a timely fence grab. Meanwhile, Covington repeatedly clubbed Maia’s head from the high crotch to the inside single, where he was able to sprawl more effective and trap Maia underneath him.
Maia is a fourth-degree black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and is about as decorated a practitioner as any inside UFC. Most notably, Maia is an ADCC gold medalist and Pan-Am champion.
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. Because of 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, slowly 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 mixed martial arts (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. In addition, 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 off 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’s back is against the wall already, and agreeing to accept this fight on short-notice was insanely risky. The stakes are unreasonably high: A win puts him right back in the title mix and ties the UFC record for victories, whereas a loss could see Maia drop from the Top 10 or even potentially retire.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is a professional 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.