Eight months after the first loss of his mixed martial arts career, Demian Maia stood across the Octagon from the sport's best fighter with a UFC title hanging in the balance.
Winning his first 11 contests, including five consecutive UFC bouts by submission, had everything to do with Maia’s reputation as one of the top middleweight prospects at the time. Yet so definitive was a 21-second KO loss to Nate Marquardt in 2009 that ousting Maia from the title picture could have been justified easily.
Then a shot against Anderson Silva materialized out of nothing when Maia, who rebounded from the Marquardt fight with a sloppy decision over unranked Dan Miller, was tabbed to replace an injured Vitor Belfort -- mostly because there wasn't anyone else.
Like so many fighters before and after him, Maia failed to do a thing against the iconic middleweight champion. Splitting four fights over the next two years, including a lopsided decision loss to Chris Weidman in January 2010, Maia was propelled to shed 15 pounds and begin anew at welterweight.
“I needed to be reborn,” Maia said over the phone from his hotel room at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, where he’ll meet Jon Fitch on Saturday during the pay-per-view portion of UFC 156. "I felt when I was hitting guys or going for a takedown at 185, sometimes it was like hitting a wall. Now in this weight division, it's more fair for me."
Seeking his third victory at 170 pounds, the 35-year-old Brazilian would step considerably closer to another title opportunity if he bests Fitch in what should be a compelling clash between two of the most effective grapplers in the UFC.
Said Maia of his American foe: "He's able to mentally break his opponents because his will is big. There are other wrestlers with big wills, but I think he has one of the biggest wills. So you need to be aware because he comes to break you."
Fitch, 34, claimed he’s excited to challenge the “monster” Maia after seeing him dismantle Rick Story in Brazil last October. "I was surprised at how big he was down in Rio," Fitch said. The pair picked up wins at UFC 153, and Maia mentioned how eager he is to test himself against a battle-hardened opponent.
All this adds up to more humility from Maia at this stage of his career. Fruits of labor, the long road traveled, is what he’s getting at. When he entered the UFC in 2007, Maia “knew almost nothing about standing up” to fight. Days away from meeting Fitch, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion can confidently claim his striking, wrestling, submission and transition games are as good as they’ve ever been.
Competing at his natural weight (around 185 pounds on fight night) also has helped, as has a renewed emphasis on submissions.
“Now that I learned I'm able to do well with boxing, I was able to train more jiu-jitsu again,” he said. “I've come back to my grappling.”
Tasked with taking on “He Who Never Taps,” Maia’s MMA submission credentials would hit new heights if he can strangle or entangle Fitch. The closest the former No. 1 welterweight contender came to tapping in the Octagon was during a Diego Sanchez triangle attempt almost six years ago.
“I didn't panic so much as worry against Sanchez,” Fitch said. “It was late in the fight and I was stuck against the fence, in a position where I couldn't defend properly -- he already had the angle. But he didn't have it on tight and I just postured out."
Maia, of course, presents a higher plane of Brazilian jiu-jitsu than Sanchez (or anyone else Fitch has fought, for that matter). And he’ll step into the cage feeling as if he is doing so for “something bigger than myself,” namely the grappling art that has molded him as a person and athlete over many years.
"My dream is to take the fight down in the first minute and submit Fitch,” Maia said. “That's my dream and I hope it comes true."
If that happens, which would be unexpected even in light of his immense grappling ability, Maia would solidify his status as a top-five welterweight, and would appear a win (or two at the most) away from locking up a shot at the welterweight belt.
"The last time I didn't realize how hard it was to get there, and how big it was," Maia said. "If I get another chance [at fighting for a UFC belt], I understand what it means to be there.
"First, I need to win this fight."