Distance key for Maia against Silva
Remember Thales Leites?
He was the solo practitioner given an opportunity to try to wrest the middleweight title from Anderson Silva at UFC 97 in April 2009.
There was a major problem, however: Leites was devoid of any wrestling ability, nor could he box. Forget Muay Thai; fighting on his feet was foreign to him.
His standup game was nonexistent. The only discipline Leites felt comfortable implementing was jiu-jitsu.
To upset Silva, something no one in the UFC has yet accomplished, Leites needed cooperation from the champ. He needed Silva to play the ground game.
Silva, however, was in no mood to fool around with Leites, who lacked any takedown skills. The fighters remained upright for five rounds, much to the chagrin of every paying onlooker.
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Leites would earn the ire of mixed martial arts fans worldwide. He'd go on to lose his next fight and eventually be shown the UFC door.
Now comes another jiu-jitsu expert, one who is more skilled at the craft than Leites. The difference is that Demian Maia refuses to rely on Silva's generosity Saturday night at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi.
If he is to hand Silva his first UFC loss and capture the 185-pound strap, Maia must get the champ off his feet. But unlike his predecessor, Maia does not intend to lie down on the job.
The Sao Paulo, Brazil, native has worked diligently to improve his striking and standup defense. A 21-second knockout loss to Nate Marquardt in August 2009 got the message across.
Maia, a significant underdog against Silva, has put that episode behind him and is confident heading into his title showdown.
"I'm ready for sure," Maia said during a recent conference call. "That [knockout loss] was something that happens in everyone's career. I'm going to do everything to win this fight.
"I went to camp to improve my standup game. The last fight [a unanimous decision win over Dan Miller in February], I was there, too. That helped me a lot, especially with learning more about the distance in standup. In standing up, it's not just about striking, but the distance."
Finding the right distance will be of utmost importance for Maia on Saturday. Though he exhibited vast improvement on his feet against Miller, who has huge holes in his standup game, Maia is light-years from Silva in that department.
He can't afford to go toe-to-toe with Silva, an accomplished striker who has a professional boxing background. Maia isn't fooling himself; he won't end Silva's title reign with an overhand right.
Footwork will be the key to his standup success. Maia intends to get close enough to Silva and shoot for a takedown.
Once Maia gets Silva on the ground, he intends to keep him there. As far as making that happen, wrestling is a major element in Maia's fight plan.
"For this fight, I put a little more attention in wrestling, because that's what I need to do in this fight," Maia said. "I need to take Anderson down."
If Maia can get Silva off his feet, the odds shift dramatically in his favor. The fight then becomes a jiu-jitsu battle, and Maia will have many more options at his disposal.
He will even have a psychological edge. Maia regularly trains with Silva's jiu-jitsu mentors and Black House teammates -- the Nogueira brothers.
"Rodrigo and Rogerio have always helped me, even before I fought in the UFC, even when I was just in jiu-jitsu," said Maia, who owns a 12-1-0 MMA mark. "Rodrigo has the biggest heart -- the nicest guy in the game.
"He can't train with me because I am fighting his teammate, but that is no problem for me. It's just normal, no problem. It's the business."
As far as Silva is concerned, it doesn't matter where the fight takes place or whom his opponent has trained with previously. He has one goal: retaining the middleweight belt.
Reaching this goal could prove a bit more difficult against Maia than Leites. Silva (25-4-0) was preparing to defend against Vitor Belfort, but an injury forced that challenger to withdraw.
Belfort is a standup fighter, a power striker; Maia is his polar opposite. Silva had only a handful of weeks to alter his fight strategy for Maia but is taking it all in stride.
"I really didn't have that much time to change, but a fight is a fight," Silva told ESPN.com during the conference call. "Regardless, I'm prepared to go in there."
Part of his preparation includes not focusing on the negative. He would have liked more time to get ready for Maia, but that's water under the bridge.
Silva is keeping a positive attitude. His accomplishments in the Octagon are unmatched; it's what Silva can turn to for reassurance. He's mentally at ease.
"There really isn't much to think of before the fight begins," Silva said. "You really just have to think of the months that you've trained and your whole lifetime of training, and do your job right to be able to go home safe."
And with the title belt still in tow.
Silva is expected to leave the cage victorious Saturday night, but winning isn't a lock. To get past an improved Maia, keeping this fight off the ground is more important than at any time in Silva's illustrious mixed martial arts career.
Don't expect a repeat of the Thales Leites fiasco.
Franklin McNeil appears regularly on ESPN.com's "MMA Live."
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