Few fighters can deal with Demian Maia’s grappling skills. | Photo: Marcelo Alonso/Sherdog.com
The Ultimate Fighting Championship returns to Fox Sports 1 with a decent lineup of fights that has been gutted by injuries. Following an injury to Raphael Assuncao, Urijah Faber was pulled from the card and slotted into the upcoming Philippines show, leaving veteran Demian Maia to take on the relatively unknown Ryan LaFlare in the main event.
The headliner should be interesting -- Maia remains a solid fighter, and LaFlare is one of the best fighters nobody is talking about -- but the name value drops off quickly after that. Josh Koscheck steps up for the injured Ben Saunders on short notice to fight one-round dynamo Erick Silva, while the rest of the lineup is full of “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil” competitors, prospects and journeymen. Many of the bouts have the potential for action and finishes, but the fights themselves might get ugly.
Let us take a look at each matchup at UFC Fight Night “Maia vs. LaFlare” this Saturday at Maracanazinho Gymnasium in Rio de Janeiro:
Demian Maia (19-6, 13-6 UFC) vs. Ryan LaFlare (11-0, 4-0 UFC)
To a certain extent, Maia has aged like fine wine. After a period of wandering in the wilderness, during which he put too much focus on his underwhelming striking game, he rediscovered his suffocating, lethal wrestle-grappling wheelhouse. Like many veterans, Maia has pared down his game to only its most efficient and high-percentage aspects. Unless he absolutely has to, he makes little use of his southpaw boxing repertoire, which features a crisp straight left and solid pressuring footwork. His real goal is to force his opponent toward the fence, where he can make the best use of his excellent clinch game. Maia is suffocating with his hands on his opponent, chipping away with the occasional knees and punches while steadily working trips, throws and positional advances to the back. It must be said, however, that his shot takedowns at range are fairly underwhelming. He has a habit of shooting from too far away, which makes him relatively easy to stuff; if he gets in on the hips, however, Maia is a killer chain-wrestler.
Once he gets the fight to the ground, Maia’s cool, methodical approach really shines. He works a variety of quick passes to the mount, throws a few ground strikes and then attempts to reach the back, where he has a slick array of setups for his rear-naked chokes and neck cranks. Simply put, Maia is a wizard on the ground and one of the very best grapplers in the sport’s history. The problem with this pared-down approach is that any sort of backup plan is essentially impossible, while his age makes it difficult for Maia to work at a quick pace.
LaFlare’s well-rounded game revolves around his excellent cardio and work rate. He can operate in every phase with some measure of skill, but what sets him apart and marks him as a fighter on the rise is his high offensive output, which he carries through into everything he does. At range, LaFlare works behind a steady diet of punch-kick combinations, with a distinct preference for the left kick to the body from his southpaw stance. The clinch is also a strong suit, as LaFlare controls well and regularly hits hard elbows and knees. He is not terribly powerful and he is relatively hittable, but few opponents can operate at his preferred pace for long.
While he is a solid striker, wrestling is LaFlare’s best skill set, especially offensively. He can hit a bewildering variety of takedowns, ranging from lateral drops, outside trips and blast doubles to low singles and everything in between, and he excels at wrestling from his knees and scrambling on the mat. Defensively, however, he tends to rely on that scrambling ability and often gives up the initial takedown in the hopes of creating a transition. He is more of a rinse-and-repeat takedown artist than someone who controls his opponent on the mat, but again, the transitions and scrambles that result from that approach are his greatest strength. He excels at landing knees, punches and elbows as his opponent gets back to his feet or reacts to a level change. While he is not especially dangerous, LaFlare breaks his opponents with his pace and ability to weave together the different facets of his game into a seamless whole.
THE PICK: This is an intriguing matchup that revolves around two questions. First, how will Maia deal with LaFlare’s pace, especially at his age? Second, will LaFlare trust his excellent takedown and transitional games against a wrestle-grappler of Maia’s caliber or will he try to maintain range at all costs? The American is the better striker by a wide margin, and if LaFlare can stay out of Maia’s wheelhouse in the clinch and on the ground, he should be able to crack the Brazilian repeatedly and wear him down. If Maia gets in on LaFlare’s hips, he could control the American on the ground and finish this early. Given Maia’s advancing age and LaFlare’s consistent improvements, however, I think the matchup favors the younger man, especially over five rounds. The pick here is LaFlare by decision, with the possibility of a late knockout.
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