Maia ups his game in hopes of title run
Working one's way back to a UFC title shot after falling short in a first attempt is a very difficult thing to do -- especially when that first attempt goes anything like Demian Maia's did at UFC 112.
In that main event, Maia dropped a unanimous decision to Anderson Silva in one of the more bizarre fights ever to occur in the UFC. It might never be fully understood why Silva acted the way he did that night, but at least one thing was clear: Maia was not in his class.
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Because of that, it's not unreasonable to think that even if the middleweight rolls through Mark Munoz this weekend at UFC 131 in Vancouver, interest to see him in another title fight could remain low.
"I know that, for sure," Maia told ESPN.com. "But I don't think about it. I just think about being a better fighter. I don't spend energy thinking about how many fights I need to be at a title again. I think about myself."
If anyone's been on a UFC roller coaster ride, it's Maia. He catapulted his way to the top by winning six of his first seven fights in the UFC, five by way of submission. He just as quickly became yesterday's news after the loss to Silva, where it was painfully clear he lacked the full arsenal of tools required to make it a competitive fight.
One year later, Maia (14-2) is honest enough to admit he's still not a finished product -- but he's getting closer every day. He's incorporated visits to the Chicago-based Overtime Academy into camps to improve his wrestling and is working regularly with boxing coach Luis Dorea, who trains UFC heavyweight Junior dos Santos, among others.
There's no question that Maia the wrestler and striker hasn't caught up with Maia the grappler, but with every breakthrough he feels his confidence rise.
"When I fought Anderson Silva I was getting better at standup, but I was in the beginning of the process," Maia said. "I think my striking is much better now, especially when I am just striking. When I want to add takedowns, my striking doesn't flow as much -- but it's just a matter of time, of course."
What's stuck with Maia from that fight against Silva even more than his opponent's awkward behavior is this feeling of knowing what needed to be done, but not having the technique or confidence to do it.
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He could envision a Georges St. Pierre-type approach to the fight -- using a stiff jab and his hands to set up a driving takedown -- working on Silva, but he simply didn't have the means to execute it.
In improving his hands under multiple boxing coaches in Brazil and studying wrestling alongside two-time NCAA champion Jake Herbert in Chicago, Maia is filling in the missing pieces around his already world-class ground game.
It's working, according to those most qualified to say so. Munoz (10-2), also a NCAA champion and former collegiate wrestling coach, has spent months studying film of Maia's career. What he's seen is a guy intent on not only learning the art of wrestling, but using it.
"I've seen his progression as a fighter in his last three fights," Munoz said. "I've seen single leg takedowns off the cage, upperbody takedowns and just his positioning on top looks like a wrestler.
"He's got more pressure on top now. He's not like a jiu-jitsu guy where he just kind of floats. He has pressure and that's what wrestlers do. It's obvious he's combining the two. He's using wrestling to get into the positions he wants."
This middleweight fight represents a big opportunity for both guys. For Munoz, it's a shot to knock off a consensus top-10 opponent, something he's yet to do in his career. For Maia, dictating where the fight takes place against a decorated wrestler like Munoz would point to his evolution as a fighter.
And for Maia, that's really become the ultimate goal. He's already witnessed first-hand if you win fights, title shots find you. His focus now is on being ready when it does.
"I know I can do much better," Maia said. "Of course, I want to fight for the title and it doesn't matter who the opponent is. But I also want to fight [Silva] again. I want to prove to myself all this training I've been doing since that fight has worked. I want to prove to myself I can fight him the right way."
Brett Okamoto covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at bokamotoESPN.
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