Demian Maia is a Mixed Martial Arts fighter of a rare breed in 2017. He is a specialist in a time when specialists are hard to find in the UFC. That means he’s an expert in one particular area of the fight - for him that area is on the ground. His forte is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which primarily focuses on controlling an opponent on the ground, and Demian is one of the best in the world at it.
Hang with me through a long post, as I’d like to introduce you to Demain Maia, for those that don’t know much about him, and then break down some key takeaways from his fight last night for the UFC world championship.
In 2007, Demian won the ADCC World Championships, one of the most prestigious grappling tournaments and considered by many to be the toughest championship to win. That same year he made his debut in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and began a ten-year display of some of the best grappling ever to be shown inside the octagon.
The UFC was started by the Gracie family (the same family that created Brazilian Jiu Jitsu by adapting Japanese Jiu Jitsu to make it their own) as a way to showcase Jiu Jitsu versus other martial arts. In the early events, it was dominated by grapplers, like Royce Gracie, and the world was sent an obvious message - you have to know Jiu Jitsu.
Now, you cannot find a single fighter on the UFC roster that does not train Jiu Jitsu. With the secret being out, stand up fighters began to slowly take over the sport as they developed better and better tactics to neutralize the attacks on the ground, and keep the fight standing up, and the champions all started to have very similar styles - a potent mixture of striking and grappling.
While Demain Maia also trains stand up arts to learn all aspects of the fight, he has stated that his game plan is always to use his Jiu Jitsu. He is a specialist and looks to get the fight to the ground where he can neutralize his opponents’ strikes, control them, and hopefully finish the fight with a submission such as the Rear Naked Choke (“Mata Leao”) shown in the fight below.
While he makes a living fighting mixed martial arts, Demian distances himself from some of the more negative aspects of the sport: the onlookers who are only interested in seeing a blood bath, the unsportsmanlike and overly cocky attitudes, and the constant trash talk. Instead, he treats everyone around him with respect, including his opponents. He is confident in himself but humble. And intends NOT to hurt his opponent!
The UFC is a business, and to make more money they have to entertain their fans and get people to watch the fights. Over the last couple of decades, a successful formula has developed in which fighters talk trash to build hype and excitement for their fights. Much of the respect, humility, and kindness that was traditionally taught in the martial arts is not present in the UFC culture as fighting and making money has become more important than sportsmanship and similar values.
Last night, Demian Maia challenged Tyron Woodley for the Welterweight title in the UFC. This fight was the culmination of years of hard work and a seven fight win streak (the current longest in the division) for Demian. Along the way, he took down and submitted the best fighters in his weight class but was passed up over and over again for a title shot because he is the antithesis to what the UFC is looking for as stated above. He doesn’t talk trash; he even said that he doesn’t try to hurt his opponents, and that is not the type of fighter that the UFC promotes (though I wish it were!).
In last night's fight, Tyron won via unanimous decision and based on the scorecards and the comments made by the commentators, Joe Rogan and Dominic Cruz, and the media, you would think that Tyron decisively won the fight. Before I go any further, let me say that I understand this is a business and that making exciting fights will entice fans to buy pay-per-views which creates a need for the scoring system to reward what would make an exciting fight.
Regardless, I watch the matches as a martial arts instructor and look to take away as many lessons on fighting as possible, and I think there are some important ones here that Demian did well (as did Tyron), but the commentators only talked about Tyron’s success.
Dominick Cruz criticizing Demian’s “wrestling.”
Throughout the fight, Demian shot in to take Tyron down 21 times and wasn’t successful at getting his opponent to the ground on a single attempt. This was obviously a job well done by Woodley. He did his homework on Demian’s takedown strategy and shut it down perfectly. Using a combination of his back against the cage, well-timed sprawls, and turning and pulling his leg free anytime Demian was close on a single leg attempt, he kept the fight standing for the entire 25 minutes.
Now, while this was going on, Dominick Cruz was pointing out some things that he thought Demian could do better with his wrestling to get Tyron to the floor. Dominick has had a lot of success in the UFC, and is very knowledgeable in the fighting game, but so is Demian. My problem with Dominick’s style of commentating is that he tends to point out what he thinks one fighter is doing wrong rather than what the other fighter is doing right. I disagree with that approach because the fact that something works one way for one fighter does not necessarily mean that is the “right” way to do things, and all fighters should do it that way.
Last night, Dominick made the comment that Demian is not following through on his shot attempts and that he needs to keep driving through his opponent to finish the takedown. He said, “that’s wrestling 101.” And he’s right. BUT Demian is not a wrestler, he is a Jiu Jitsu fighter and one of the best to ever compete in the UFC. He trains wrestling to improve his takedowns and takedown defense, but if you look at the success he has had thus far, it is not by using “wrestling 101.” He doesn’t usually drive through his opponents to get them down, and one of the reasons is his body.
If you look at Demian Maia and Tyron Woodley side by side you will notice a taller, leaner Demian Maia, and a shorter, stockier, Tyron Woodley. Tyron is extremely muscular, explosive, and powerful. Woodley is a wrestler and has the body necessary to drive through his opponents and follow through on his takedowns with ease. Demain does not, at least not with ease on a strong wrestler like Woodley.
I know this because I have a similar build to Demian Maia. I wrestled in high school and had a much harder time with it than I did with Jiu Jitsu. In Jiu Jitsu, you don’t need the pure athleticism that you do in wrestling. While both grappling styles are technical, wrestling is much more built around explosiveness, and Jiu Jitsu is much more based on control.
In another martial art, Kenpo, five animals are used to showcase the different characteristics and styles that a martial artist can implement. In this fight, Tyron Woodley would be a Tiger, and Demian Maia would be a snake. Tyron has the explosive power to charge forward and quickly take out an opponent, and Demian has the strength of an anaconda to wrap his opponents up and control them (or choke them!).
So when Dominick Cruz criticizes Demian for not wrestling the way a wrestler would, I’d have to say that he’s right, but it’s because that’s not the style of fighting that works for him. The fight video above is Demian in the middle of his 7-fight win streak where you can see his Jiu Jitsu in action, and the way he typically has success getting his opponents to the ground.
Demian shoots in on his opponents, but rather than drive through to finish like a wrestler, he latches on and either drags them down to the ground with him or even pulls them on top of him. His goal is just to get them close. Then he can go to work.
Both Commentators Calling for Demian to Throw High Kicks
As the fight went on, the commentators began to try to come up with things Demian could seek to do to have more success. At one point they began calling for Demian to throw some high round kicks to the head of Woodley.
Their argument was solid in that Demian needed to try to mix things up because apparently Tyron was prepared for Demian’s game plan. They stated that since he isn’t afraid of getting taken down, there was no risk in throwing kicks and that in fact, it would be a gift if Tyron decided to catch Demian’s kick and take him down. This is true, but what they are forgetting is that while half of Demian’s gameplan was to get the fight to the ground, the other half was to control the distance on the feet and ensure that Tyron could not strike effectively.
The most important rule in the fight is to control the distance, and Demian did it beautifully in last night’s loss. He maintained a range in which Tyron could not reach him to land his notoriously powerful punches that have knocked out some of the best fighters in the division. He did this by calmly moving out of punching range or closing the distance with a takedown attempt anytime Tyron came forward with an attempt to strike.
Throwing a high round kick while trying to control the distance can be risky in that you could be caught standing on one foot and your opponent could seize that opportunity to finally close the distance and land a big punch while you are unable to retreat effectively or shoot. This is especially true with a round kick because since the kick travels around the side, it would allow the opponent to move straight forward past the kick and close the distance. Especially with Woodley’s speed and 2-inch reach advantage!
Discussing Tyron Shutting Down Demian’s Game But Not Demian Shutting Down Tyron’s
Lastly, the commentators highlighted well that Tyron was shutting down Demian’s gameplan by stopping all 21 takedown attempts and keeping the fight standing up. And since it was a unanimous decision from the judges, they apparently felt the same way.
However, I’d like to argue that Demian shut down Tyron’s game effectively as well. As stated above, he controlled the distance very well and didn’t allow Tyron to effectively strike, evidenced by the fans booing Woodley as soon as his name was announced as the winner. The fans were frustrated because of the lack of effectiveness Tyron had on his feet. He did a superb job keeping it on the feet, but then could not execute there effectively.
In the post fight press conference, Dana White was extremely critical of Tyron Woodley’s performance and much like Dominick was doing to Demian Maia as discussed above, Dana was discussing what he thought Tyron was doing wrong rather than what Demian was doing right.
Tyron did not strike effectively because anytime he began to commit to his striking, Demian would shoot in for a takedown. You could argue that while Demian didn’t manage to get the fight to the ground, his takedowns were extremely effective because of what they did. They allowed him to control the distance.
Demian did a phenomenal job controlling the distance, Tyron did a phenomenal job at stopping the takedowns, and Tyron was able to inflict slightly more damage which is surely what secured him the win on the judge’s cards. Dana White was overly critical and said Woodley should be embarrassed, going as far to say that “it couldn’t be a worse performance.” I disagree, I thought Woodley did a great job staying composed and not falling into the trap that could have landed him on the ground with Maia, not to mention he defended 21 takedowns!
As a martial artist, I enjoy watching someone like Demian Maia fight more than anyone else. He fights efficiently, with incredible technique, and doesn’t look physically imposing. To acquire the skills you see Demian Maia using, you only need to train martial arts for many years. You don’t have to be naturally gifted with athleticism or power, but if you are, the martial arts can provide you with a fighting style that fits you too! The five animals of Kenpo that we mentioned above are the Tiger, Snake, Crane, Leopard, and Dragon. All five are very different, but all can fight effectively.
Most importantly, I love that Demian Maia carries himself like a true martial artist with respect and humility in both victory and defeat. The UFC really doesn’t deserve him, but I’m glad he’s there so that my children still have some genuine martial artists to watch fight.