Welterweights#12 WW | Gilbert Burns (17-3) vs. #5 WW | Demian Maia (28-9)
ODDS: Burns (-190), Maia (+165)
This is the next-to-last stop on what shapes up to be a fun retirement tour for Maia. It has been an impressive career for one of the most universally beloved fighters in the sport, as the Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace has managed to bounce back and find his way to contention time and time again. After getting embarrassed on the feet by Anderson Silva in one of the worst UFC title fights of all-time, conventional wisdom was that Maia would never get near a championship again, particularly after a period in which he morphed into “K-1 Maia” and focused on his kickboxing. After stalling at 185 pounds, Maia cut down to welterweight and immediately re-established himself as a powerhouse grappler. What makes Maia unique among his fellow submission aces is that he is also among the best wrestlers in his division. Rather than hoping to catch his opponents unaware, Maia simply takes things to the mat and follows the textbook, working from position to position while controlling the fight handily until he finds the tap. After losses to Jake Shields and Rory MacDonald figured to close the book on Maia’s high-level relevance for good, he turned around and just kept winning fights until he could not be denied any longer, rattling off seven straight wins that culminated in a title opportunity against Tyron Woodley at UFC 214. Unfortunately, Maia went for 21 takedowns and whiffed on them all, resulting in an excruciating loss that officially ended his championship aspirations. Losses to Colby Covington and Kamaru Usman followed, but as it turns out, when Maia is not facing the three best wrestlers at 170 pounds, he is as good as ever. He still only has about two rounds of cardio in him, but a successful 2019 campaign saw him earn wins over Lyman Good, Anthony Rocco Martin and Ben Askren without much issue. Maia has made it clear that he plans to retire once he fulfills his current contract, and he entered the year with two bouts to go. It remains unclear who will get the honor of being his final opponent, but an intriguing cross-generational confrontation with Burns comes next.
Burns has bubbled under as a prospect to watch for years, but his status as a welterweight contender came out of nowhere. For years, the book on Burns was fairly clear: Coming from his own high-level Brazilian jiu-jitsu background, he was as dangerous as anyone on the ground, but his striking game was limited to powerful single punches that missed more often than not. That usually meant Burns would string together a few wins before suffering a setback, but after an impressive victory over Olivier Aubin-Mercier to capped his 2018 slate, Burns found himself in the difficult position of being a talented fighter with nobody who wanted to fight him. He essentially made his own luck. Alexey Kunchenko, who boasted a perfect 20-0 record at the time, needed a late-notice opponent at UFC Fight Night 156 in August. Burns stepped in and pressured the Russian on route to a decision win. A month and a half later, Burns repeated the same trick, stepping in against Gunnar Nelson and earning another impressive victory. Since then, Burns has tried to shoehorn his way into some other late-notice opportunities that have not quite materialized. He gets a big chance here to wrest away Maia’s crown as the welterweight division’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace.
This was the right fight to make, but it also feels like Maia’s fight to lose. For all his progress, Burns still relies on his ability to effectively pressure his opponent when he sets his mind to it. Since few opponents can match Burns’ physical strength and grappling skill, he can usually find a path to victory. This fight stands out as a clear exception. This figures to be one of those encounters—much like Maia’s own bout against Nelson in 2015—in which the wrestling advantage shines; in general, whenever a fight seems like a bit of a mirror match, the safe pick is the fighter who has been doing it longer. Whenever Burns decides to rush in, a knockout is unlikely, as only Nate Marquardt in 2009 managed to finish Maia. The seasoned veteran should be able to pull his usual tricks of taking this to the mat and staying on top. As always, the third round should certainly be an adventure. Maia gasses even when he gets to dictate the terms of the fight up to that point. With that said, the pick is for Maia to once again hang on for a decision.
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