Demian Maia: My life as a fighter

Demian Maia faces a tough test against Lyman Good on Saturday in Fortaleza, Brazil. Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Demian Maia, arguably the best grappler in the UFC today, has done a bit of everything in his esteemed career. His elite Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills have helped him submit some of MMA's most feared fighters, and he has competed for a title belt on multiple occasions.

Maia, 41, will make his 29th walk out to the Octagon on Saturday when he squares off with Lyman Good in Fortaleza, Brazil. It's a crucial bout, as he has lost his past three. Ahead of the tough matchup, Maia, from Sao Paulo, spoke with ESPN about his long career in both MMA and jiu-jitsu and what the future could hold. Here it is, in his own words.

"I started training judo when I was 5 years old. I didn't know much. My mom just took me and my brother to do some judo because we were very energetic. We did that for a couple of years. I don't know why we stopped, but I came back to try other forms of martial arts like kung fu and karate when I was 12 and never stopped.

"I switched from kung fu to jiu-jitsu [at 19 years old] because I was watching some fights and the jiu-jitsu guys were winning everything. I said to myself, 'I want to do that.' It was also a Brazilian martial art, so the culture was bigger here [in Sao Paulo] than a traditional martial art from the East. As soon as I started, I fell in love with jiu-jitsu.

"The first month, I was training once a day, but then after a couple months, I started training at least twice a day. Sometimes I was also lifting weights, which I never did before. I was living jiu-jitsu.

"The work ethic that I had and the love I had for it made me realize that I could be very good. At that time, people were starting to turn professional, in the late 1990s. You could make a living from that. I always thought about being a fighter, but it was not an option because there were not too many professionals fighting. I didn't think about making my living fighting. I was thinking I could be a teacher or coach and compete in tournaments and make my living there.

"It was a very emotional day [when I received my black belt]. I was crying. I couldn't believe what happened. It was one of the biggest achievements in my life. I still remember today that they expected me to talk, and I couldn't talk because I was struggling to say something. It was given to me by Fabio Gurgel when I was 24. It took me about 4½ years. At my academy, that was very fast because my coach was very strict. Nobody took the belt before at least seven years of very hard training. But I was winning a lot. And when I was not training, I was teaching with the older professors there. When I wasn't in college, I was training and teaching and working in jiu-jitsu.

"I watched the ADCC [Abu Dhabi Combat Club] world championships in 1998. I saw that and said, 'This is the perfect step before going to MMA.' The jiu-jitsu was all gi at that time, but we would train no gi sometimes. I was helping the older guys who were going to compete in that, and finally I won the trials and got to compete. I won second in 2005, and then in 2007, I finally won.

"I had my first professional fight was in 2001 in Venezuela -- it was also my first international trip away from Brazil. It was a great experience. Then in 2005, I went to Finland and won. The next year there was a tournament in Brazil with three fights in one night. I was the underdog and won all three fights.

"In 2007, I fought in Ohio. I flew to Chicago, stayed with some friends training, went to Ohio, fought this fight and won, and then I came back the same night to Chicago and arrived at 6 a.m. I taught a class in Chicago from 7 a.m. to 8, 8 to 9, 9 to 10, 10 to 11 and 11 to 12.

"After all six fights, I was 6-0. My manager at the time said he spoke with some organizations and we ended up almost finishing a deal with K-1. It didn't work out. He was also talking to the UFC, and we signed with them in 2007.

"The only time I really got heavily hit was my first loss, to Nate Marquardt [in 2009]. He hit me when I was running into him. I fell, and he knocked me out. As soon as I hit the ground, I woke up. The referee stopped the fight because I was kind of out. That was the only really hard punch I took in my whole life.

"[Fighting Anderson Silva in 2010] was an interesting experience. I only had about 12 fights at that time. The experience of going to Abu Dhabi and fighting there for the first time was great. The main thing I realized was that I was able to handle it like a real fighter. I had just 12 fights and wasn't very experienced, and I fought the best guy in the world in his prime. We made a lot of mistakes -- I wasn't able to take him down -- but I handled the fight and stood with him for all five rounds. For me, before the fight, I wasn't sure if that was going to be possible.

"I think I was too immature at that time for that fight. But we cannot change how things are. I learned from that experience. I look back not sad, but happy with how everything went.

"It's always hard to fight against wrestlers because they are able to avoid my takedowns well. When I saw [Chael Sonnen] in front of me [in 2009], he was huge. Much bigger than I thought. There was a lot of pressure on me because I was thinking about fighting for the title. When I got there at the O2 Arena, I looked at him and realized he was much bigger than he was at the weigh-ins. Chael started the fight with some jabs. Then I pulled guard and was able to punch him from the bottom. We stood up again.

"I realized I wasn't going to get a clean shot for a takedown. I clinched and did a takedown I was teaching so many years for self-defense. I fell into the mount and went into the triangle.

"The Carlos Condit fight [in 2016] was kind of scary because he was a guy who knocks out everybody. I said, 'Imagine if I go and shoot for the takedown and get a flying knee to my face.' He's been champion. I get there, and it's the main fight of the evening in Vancouver. It was a place I fought before and lost before, so it was in the back of my head. I won really quick with a submission in the first round without taking any punches. It was a great experience.

"If you lose three times [in a row], you have to win now. That's what I've been working for -- to win. I want that as bad as possible.

"You need to put things into perspective -- the guys that I lost to [Tyron Woodley, Colby Covington, Kamaru Usman] were the top three guys in the world. The champion and then the guy who was the interim champion and now the guy who is going to fight for the title and has a good chance to be champ. Those losses are against top-, top-level guys, and they are also wrestlers. It's hard for me to fight wrestlers because they are good against my takedown and ground game.

"I want to be remembered as a guy who goes out and represents the art of jiu-jitsu. I want to show in a violent sport like our sport, you don't need to hurt anybody in order to win. Sometimes it happens, but you can go and win in a clean way.

"I do [see retirement coming soon], but not because of the drop in my performance. More because of the time I want to have to do other things. When you're a professional fighter, you pretty much live to train because you never know when you could be called for a fight. If I'm retiring after the three fights that I have left on my contract, it's because I want to put effort and energy in other parts of my life like my affiliate academies around the world, my seminars, TV and maybe a podcast I want to do. I don't have time to do it all right now. That's the only reason why I think about the retirement.

"I have three more fights on my contract. After those three fights, I'll decide whether I want to continue or not. I also want to see how I do in those three fights. I'm 41. I don't know in one year how I'm going to feel. If my performance drops, I don't want to keep going. I don't want to have brain damage or something because I want to keep going. As long as my performances go well, I will keep going."