At some point in their journey, every fighter dreams of becoming a champion.
When the pursuit of such things begin, that lofty goal is set somewhere in the far-off distance as the process of rubber meeting road gets underway. Natural talent, determination and an elevated skill set are all elements required to get through the initial stages, but those attributes have to be in perpetual evolution for success to be achieved at the highest levels of the sport.
Yet every now and then, a case will come along where a mixed martial artist possesses all the required tools—some in fact extraordinary—but is unable to lay claim to championship gold. While their abilities allow them to best a vast majority of competition, opponents who expose their one great weakness ring the death knell on their title hopes.
It is in the aftermath of these setbacks where adjustments are made, but even the most work will produce limited results. A fighter with an extensive background in jiu-jitsu but no history in stand-up disciplines will never become an elite striker, just as a fighter trying to develop wrestling skills deep into their career will never become dominant in that particular aspect.
The label of being a "well-rounded" fighter has become borderline cliche in this day and age of MMA, but over-used as it may be, it doesn't take away from the necessity of a fighter being able to do all things well inside the cage. When the progress of these efforts seem to stall and gained improvements are no longer showing, the large majority of fighters settle into the realm of being good but just not quite talented enough to be the best.
Demian Maia is the exception to this circumstance...albeit one that took awhile to fully materialize.
The Brazilian grappling phenom brought his world-class jiu-jitsu portfolio and undefeated record to the UFC in 2007 where he wasted no time making his presence felt. Maia picked up victories in his first five showings, all coming by way of submission finish. Nevertheless, it wasn't until suffering a knockout at the hands of Nate Marquardt at UFC 102, two years after his debut, when things began to take on a different shape for Maia.
Following the bout with Marquardt, the Sao Paulo native dove headlong into improving his striking skills. While he was making steady progress in that department, the impact it had on his performances inside the cage were telling. Suddenly, the "lights-out" submission expert was gone and a cautious "striker-in-progress" version of Maia appeared inside the Octagon.
While his dynamics on fight night changed, Maia still found enough success to earn an ill-fated title shot against then-middleweight king Anderson Silva at UFC 112 in 2010. Despite the bout turning into one of the strangest showdowns in recent memory, the concrete facts going in told the tale. With Silva being the most dominant and accurate striker in MMA history, Maia getting the fight to the ground would be his only hope.
But that scenario never materialized, and the unanimous decision loss for Maia ended up being the only predictable element of the bizarre main event in Abu Dhabi.
He would bounce back following the loss to Silva, but he experienced mixed results and criticism along the way. Suddenly, he was the extraordinary grappler who couldn't hang on his feet. Despite being one of the rare cases where a high-level BJJ practitioner was able to successfully transition into the top level of MMA, the holes in Maia's striking game cast large shadows of doubt upon his ability to ever reach the top.
The book on Maia reclaiming his spot as a title contender was all but closed following his lackluster showing against Chris Weidman at UFC on Fox 2 in 2012. While neither fighter looked remotely impressive, the Ray Longo fighter stepped in on 10-days notice, and for that, he was given a pass for his exhausted showing in Chicago.
Maia wasn't as fortunate. He resembled a shell of his former self in the bout with Weidman and it was clear his career had hit a wall in the aftermath. Where lesser fighters would have re-committed to going back to the drawing board to shore up the holes in their game, the 35-year-old Brazilian made a commitment of a different variety. And the results have been amazing.
Rather than attempting to get back on track as a middleweight, Maia decided to make the drop down into the welterweight division. While fighters switching weight classes to create a spark is nothing new, what made Maia's situation so unique has little to do with weight limits and much to do with returning to his previous mindset.
He was never going to be one of the premier strikers in MMA, but he was already one of the most dangerous, if not the best, submission-based fighter on the planet. Commitment to that skill set rarely failed him inside the Octagon, and he set out on a new course at 170 pounds.
Maia made his official welterweight debut against Dong Hyun Kim at UFC 148 last July. He picked up a TKO victory over the Korean fighter due to a rib injury Kim suffered as a result of a takedown in the early goings and notched his first win at his new weight class.
In addition to defeating the "Stun Gun," the resurgent Brazilian also collected victories over Rick Story and Jon Fitch. Maia made short work out of the Brave Legion fighter via neck crank in the first round of their tilt at UFC 153, and then he upped his stock substantially by dominating Fitch four months later at UFC 156 in Las Vegas.
Following his victory over the AKA staple, Maia found himself creeping onto the welterweight title radar. Just 14 months after making his 170-pound debut, he was on the cusp of breaking through into the championship tier of the highly competitive weight class. His re-invention was in full swing and his re-emergence as a dangerous threat did not go unnoticed.
"It has been great," Maia told Bleacher Report. "When we get there and see the fans and how excited they are, that is what this sport is all about. It's all about the fans and I love when the fans get excited for the fight. I also love fans that understand the ground game and the fans have always been great to me. They've always given me great feedback, but especially now that I'm at 170. It's getting bigger and people in the U.S. and Brazil have been giving me so much support and feedback. Their excitement is great and it brings me a lot of motivation.
"I've felt better every time out at 170. With each fight I'm getting more used to this new weight and I feel this it is the best weight for me to perform at. Every time I feel better."
That being said, there is still road to travel if he hopes to earn a title shot, and the next step on his journey will come next Wednesday night against Jake Shields at Fight Night 29. The bout will not only be a collision of two of the most highly regarded jiu-jitsu practitioners in MMA, but it will carry heavy title implications as well.
While Maia's dreams of becoming a UFC champion are more alive than they've ever been, he's not going to make the mistake of looking one inch beyond Shields. He understands the threats the former Strikeforce middleweight champion brings to the table and is looking forward to mixing it up with Shields on Oct. 9.
"I think it's a great matchup, especially for people who love BJJ," Maia said. "There is a lot of excitement about this fight in the BJJ community because people are expecting a great fight. I hope to put on a great display of grappling in this fight. We never know when we fight MMA, but I really like this matchup.
"This fight will be a great opportunity for me. But first off all, I have to face Jake Shields and that is what I'm focused on. This is the week of the fight and I can't really think of anything past that. Jake is a really tough dude to defeat and that is what is right in front of me. I can't think about the title right now but of course it is something I would like to accomplish."
Leading up to the bout between Maia and Shields, much has been made about the opportunity to see two of MMA's premier grapplers locking up inside the cage. Where Maia carries the flag for Brazil, Shields has touted his own brand of the discipline which he calls "American jiu-jitsu."
While Maia certainly doesn't dismiss Shields' abilities on the ground, he doesn't put much stock in the Californian bringing anything he's unfamiliar with to the table.
"I think this name he uses for his style is for marketing," Maia said. "I think he pretty much does BJJ just like I do. He trains with the Gracies in San Francisco and is very good with his BJJ. I really don't care about names. But what I know is that he's a very good BJJ fighter."
Maia's success inside the cage has hinged largely on his ability to apply his traditional BJJ skill set in the ever-changing environment of MMA. With the days of single-disciplined fighters long gone, Maia's ability to adapt and execute have been impressive.
Where the jump into the live-fire world of punches, kicks and knees has given most grapplers fits in their attempt to crossover, Maia's transition has been successful because it's one he's always prepared for.
"Since I started training BJJ for the first time, I was thinking about MMA," Maia said. "At that time everything was kind of mixed together with Vale Tudo and BJJ and we trained a lot with punches, slaps, and kicks. We trained a lot of self-defense. As I was developing my techniques I would test them to see if they would also work no gi and in MMA.
"I tried to put techniques in my game that would work for everything...not just for jiu-jitsu, but self-defense and MMA as well. I developed my game around techniques that were efficient for everything."
On Wednesday night in Barueri, Brazil, Maia will look to take one more definitive step to reaching his ultimate goal. His past reflects more success than most, but his future is now looking brighter than it ever has before.
Maia has appreciated every aspect of his journey—the victories and the setbacks—as they provided a continuous education which has lead up to the here and now. Shields is the next challenge standing before him, but it is one that will come as the biggest fight on a UFC card that will take place in his own back yard.
"It's great to be the main event, especially to do so in my home town," Maia said. "It's very special. I think I've had 16 fights in the UFC, and the only time I've competed in Brazil was last year in Rio. Now I get to do it again in Sao Paulo. That is my home city and makes it even more special."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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