Maynard hopes to stand tall at UFC 118
Victories will get a fighter noticed. The manner in which he wins will often determine whether fans appreciate him.
Winning hasn't been a problem for UFC lightweight contender Gray Maynard, who has a date Saturday with Kenny Florian at UFC 118 in Boston. Maynard has held off every opponent put before him en route to an impressive record of 10-0-0 (1 no-contest).
Getting the mixed martial arts fan base to embrace him, however, has proven a difficult hurdle for Maynard to overcome.
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He is a big, powerful and highly skilled wrestler, and prefers to control his opponent on the ground. It's a style that piles up wins -- but not much fan support.
His swarming, lay-and-pray style might also have delayed Maynard's dream of landing a title shot. He has been labeled a boring fighter.
It's a tag Maynard no longer wants attached to him. To shed the label, he has worked diligently to diversify his offensive arsenal, especially in the stand-up area.
And he has made progress. Maynard showed off some of his improved striking during a split decision over Nate Diaz in January.
It was a gamble to stand with Diaz, but Maynard survived. Now he goes up against Florian, one of the most well-rounded fighters in the division.
Kenny Florian is a tough kid. I've got to dominate him. It doesn't have to be a knockout, but there can be no doubt that when it's over I've clearly won. That's the key.” -- Gray Maynard
Had Maynard faced Florian a year ago, his lack of a stand-up game surely would have been exploited. Though he is far from a finished product in the striking arena, Maynard will enter this contest confident he can hold his own standing.
"Kenny Florian is a tough kid," Maynard told ESPN.com. "I've got to dominate him. It doesn't have to be a knockout, but there can be no doubt that when it's over I've clearly won. That's the key.
"I have to have a plan and take it to him. If the KO comes, great; the tap, whatever it is, great. If not, just keep to the plan."
It's likely that Maynard's plan will center more on wrestling than striking, but with the winner expected to receive a title shot, pleasing the crowd isn't his top priority.
Maynard intends to win this fight, and if it means receiving less fan appreciation, so be it. He will let his accomplishments in the Octagon do the talking for him.
"Let's check out Gray: He's had the champ, and that fight wasn't that close," Maynard said of his 2008 decision win over Frankie Edgar. "Honestly, he is tough to tap out or KO. It doesn't happen; he has one loss.
And then there's Nate Diaz, whom Maynard beat in a split decision in his most recent bout, at UFC Fight Night 20 in January. "Diaz: He got tapped out by Hermes [Franca] a long time ago, but honestly, I don't think anybody can tap him out or KO him. He has a tough chin. I don't care who it is -- [B.J.] Penn or anybody -- against Nate, the fight will go the full distance.
"They say, 'Gray doesn't do this or do that,' but Penn can go through that same list and not knock them out or tap them out."
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The list of fighters Maynard has defeated is impressive, but Florian might very well present his most difficult test. Previous opponents might have been concerned about Maynard's physical size and elite wrestling ability, but not Florian.
He expects to handle Maynard no matter where the action takes place. Florian believes there is nothing Maynard can do in the cage that he hasn't already seen. The quality of training partners Florian works with regularly is a major source of his confidence.
"I train with the best wrestler in mixed martial arts -- Georges St. Pierre," Florian (15-4-0) told ESPN.com. "He's not going to be a better wrestler than Georges, and he's not going to be bigger than Georges, that's for sure.
"This is the best time for me to face Gray Maynard. I'm ready."
A big advantage will go to the man who can control the pace of the bout. That usually takes place standing. Florian's solid footwork, jab and takedown defense could prove beneficial in that area. He also fights from a southpaw stance, which gives many opponents difficulties.
Maynard, however, is at ease competing against left-handed fighters. He has faced a few during his UFC tenure.
"I'm going on my fifth camp preparing for a southpaw," Maynard said. "A lot of fighters don't know what to do with southpaws. I have been preparing for lefties in every camp for two years. It's getting pretty easy now."
OK, so Maynard has improved his stand-up game and won't be discouraged by Florian's lefty style, but this bout won't be fought before a neutral audience. Florian is a Bostonian, and he'll surely have the expected sellout crowd at TD Garden behind him. But that, too, is an issue of little concern to Maynard.
"Fighting in his hometown doesn't matter," Maynard said. "It's a fight. Maybe it matters to him, but not to me. It's just a fight -- that's all it is. The crowd is blocked out. I'm there to win. That's it.
"After I win, there might be some boos. Maybe I will notice the crowd then."
No matter who wins the fight, Maynard might have to wait a while longer before MMA fans -- at least those in Boston -- fully embrace him.
Franklin McNeil is a contributing mixed martial arts/boxing writer for ESPN.com. He also appears regularly on "MMA Live," which now airs on ESPN2. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Franklin_McNeil.
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