"I think doing what you love and being committed to your profession is the most important thing, whatever it is that you do." - Demian Maia
It was the chant Demian Maia had heard so many times before in his formative years, in the moments before he became a UFC fighter and went on an international tour of sorts that took him from Montreal to Minneapolis, London to Las Vegas, and Abu Dhabi to Chicago.
But last October 13, the grappling master returned to fight in his home country of Brazil against Rick Story, and midway through the opening round, he gave his fans reason to chant once again.
“The feeling was awesome, not only because it was a win by submission, but because Story is a great fighter, a very tough opponent and there were a lot of special elements added to that fight,” said Maia. “It was my first time fighting for the UFC in Brazil, and to win again by submission in Rio de Janeiro, one of the birth places of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and to have the crowd shouting ‘Jiu-Jitsu! Jiu-Jitsu!’ after the fight like in the old days made it feel extra special. This is a tough sport, and winning is always great and difficult no matter how. It certainly felt great though.”
It was a Hollywood ending to a Brazilian homecoming story, yet despite everything that was on the line in terms of Maia fighting a tough opponent in his second fight in the stacked 170-pound division and doing it at home for the first time in six years, he was remarkably calm leading up to the event.
“I didn't feel any added pressure because actually I was coming from a fight with heavy pressure at UFC 148,” said Maia, referring to his first round TKO of Dong Hyun Kim last July. “Whenever you are coming from a loss there's a sense of urgency to win, and as pro fighters we know how much a win and a loss mean in global terms to your career. 148 was tough. It was also my debut at welterweight and that presented lots of new challenges. So fighting in Brazil turned actually into a motivation, and it was something I wanted to do for a long time. The experience was great with the support from the fans and it was certainly something I wanted to have for my career.”
This Saturday, Maia, now 2-0 as a welterweight after fighting the previous part of his career at 185 pounds, will be on the road again, this time in Vegas to face Jon Fitch in a UFC 156 main card bout. The 35-year-old Sao Paulo native is 4-0 as a pro in the city, so he might as well have home field advantage there too, but what really matters most is that in his new weight class, he finally feels that he can deliver his best night in and night out.
“I'm feeling good at welterweight,” he said. “At middleweight I barely had to cut weight and I would actually make an effort to get bigger and heavier to not give away too much power to my opponents. In my first UFC fights I stepped in the Octagon to fight at around 190 pounds or something like that, which is almost ridiculous for a middleweight nowadays. Most of the top middleweight fighters actually cut from 220 pounds or sometimes even more, and I would put in an effort to walk around at 203 pounds. Fighting as a welterweight, I'm feeling at least closer in size and strength to most of the other fighters, and this has been helping me to perform better. Both weight classes have top fighters, and there are no easy paths, but I think that for my genetics and frame, welterweight seems more equal.”
His opponents may not feel the same way, at least when the fight hits the mat, because on the ground, Maia has few peers. This was evident against Story, when a relatively safe position turned into a fight finishing one moments later with a few well-placed maneuvers by the decorated Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt. And when he saw that his rear naked choke wasn’t going to end the bout, Maia switched to a neck crank and ended matters. It was a scary finish, and one that prompted a referral back to the Brazilian’s UFC bio and a question about his favorite technique.
Maia responded “Submit my opponent without him hurting me or me hurting him.”
So does Maia ever worry about hurting someone in the Octagon?
“That (the bio quote) actually comes from the years of training BJJ,” he said. “It's not something you have to think about during the fight, but something that happens naturally, as you have trained your whole life to neutralize your opponent and submit him without the extra need to put punishment on him. However, this is an MMA fight and obviously punches and strikes are gonna happen at one time or another. I do my best to win the fight, which is every fighter's goal, and I end up always playing in my style one way or another. During the fight you can't or won't worry about anything other than winning the fight, but you're trained to do it within the rules of the sport and respect for your opponents is a matter of character actually.”
This Saturday he will put his skills on the line once again, this time against perennial contender Fitch, a fighter Maia has been well aware of for some time.
“Fitch is a great fighter, as proven as one can be,” he said. “Just look at the list of names he has fought and defeated, and the battles he has been in. He fought for the belt, defeated great prospects, fought legends all the way and defeated several established fighters. For someone to have such a long and winning record like he has, and be at the top for so long, there's no way you won't credit him as a top fighter. I have seen lots of his fights through the years, and obviously now I paid more attention to them. I think he presents a world of difficulties to anyone. He is well-rounded, good standing up, has great wrestling for MMA, great cardio and pace, a very good ground game for MMA, and most of all an amazing, strong mind. You have to be able to keep up with his pace and tenacity, and mostly with his mind and will throughout the fight to have a shot.”
Of course to the diehard fans, the question is, can the man who has been dubbed unchokeable for his top-notch submission defense repeat that feat against a man you don’t want to let anywhere near your neck (or any limb for that matter)?
“I think he is a challenge for many reasons, not only that,” said Maia. “I don't go into fights expecting to submit anyone, or putting this pressure on me. I go in there to do my best and try to implement my game plans, and if they work well a finish might be a natural consequence, be it against him or anyone else, and I'm sure he thinks the same. Sometimes you worry so much about submitting someone that you end up frustrating yourself and losing focus on the fight. I have to fight my best and be prepared for all scenarios, and what has to happen will happen, and then we both have to be able to deal with it and keep fighting until it's over, one way or another.”
What is clear is that whether Maia wins by submission, knockout, or decision, if he does get the victory, that’s three straight at 170 pounds against top-notch competition, making him a player in the talent-rich weight class. He’s not looking too far ahead though.
“I leave that to my manager and my trainers,” he said. “There are so many tough guys at welterweight, a lot of guys wanting a title shot, and I have one of the toughest to fight at 156 in Fitch. We have to look at this fight, do our best and then move on. Most of the welterweight contenders have fights lined up, and I'm sure the UFC is waiting to see how everything unfolds on the next cards before making decisions. Injuries happen a lot in this sport and everything can change at any given minute; that's why you have to focus on the next fight only and let your team take care of the rest.”
Then it’s all up to Maia, a fighter who has had more success than most, with 15 UFC bouts under his belt. That’s an impressive run of longevity, but he doesn’t have the luxury of stopping to smell the roses yet. As for the secret…
“I don't know,” he laughs. “I think doing what you love and being committed to your profession is the most important thing, whatever it is that you do. You have to try your best to have peace of mind, and whatever happens you know you did your best. I hope to stay in it for a long time and work myself up for another title shot, this time at welterweight.”