Perennial welterweight contender Demian Maia will return to the Octagon for his third assignment of 2019 when he meets Ben Askren in the UFC Fight Night 162 main event on Saturday in Kallang, Singapore. This sets up as a dream match for grappling fans, with Maia being one of the most accomplished jiu-jitsu practitioners in MMA history and Askren being one of the most unique wrestlers to ever set foot in the cage.
While Maia might not have an official nickname, fans have dubbed him “The Human Backpack,” which perfectly sums up his style. Early in his career, he attempted to fight as a well-rounded mixed martial artist and enjoyed success doing so. He earned himself a middleweight title shot against Anderson Silva just five years into his MMA career and has amassed a 21-9 record inside the Ultimate Fighting Championship. However, after his loss to Chris Weidman in 2012, Maia changed his approach and appeared to realize his grappling skills alone could get him much further. In every fight since, he has focused on getting his opponent to the mat and has gone on one of the best runs of his career.
Maia’s exploits are under the microscope in this edition of The Film Room:
A major problem for older jiu-jitsu practitioners is setting up and landing takedowns. Against elite wrestlers like Tyron Woodley and Colby Covington, Maia could not land a single takedown, but he is good enough to get most opponents down eventually. Maia generally looks for a dragging single-leg, but he also has good upper body control that helps with clinch takedowns.
Maia’s initial shot usually fails, but he uses this to work his way into other takedowns. Maia will shoot for a takedown expecting it to be defended and then use whatever grip he achieved to work his way into better positions. If he has a single-leg, he will continue to drive into the hips and land the takedown from his knees, or he will look for double underhooks in the clinch and drive the opponent to the cage and look for takedowns from there. Askren uses this exact technique to get his opponents to the ground, so it will be interesting to see what happens in these exchanges.
The difference between the two is that Maia is comfortable off his back, while Askren needs to be on top to have success. He will often use an opponents’ sprawl to pull guard and either look for submissions or sweep to a dominant position. Few fighters are confident enough to pull guard, but Maia knows his best chance is always on the ground, whether he is in a favorable position or not. Even if he gets beat up in full guard for a minute, he knows the opponent will eventually make a mistake on which he can capitalize and transition to a dominant position.
Once Maia moves on top, he will immediately look to pass into full mount using variations of what many call the dope mount or smash pass. The dope mount is a pass that exploits the opponent’s tendency to use a butterfly hook from half guard, creating an opportunity to move directly into full mount. Maia likes to force opponents to use butterfly hooks by tripoding. Once they attempt to elevate him, he will lace his right leg over their left leg and slowly slide his knee through the guard and into mount. We first saw this in MMA with B.J. Penn, and more and more grapplers utilize this simple but effective chain of passes.
Maia does not throw much ground-and-pound these days, and when he does, it serves to fluster the opponent into scrambling so he can take the back. Even though he is probably not going to finish a fight with strikes, it is nice to see him use them to force the opponent to make a mistake so he can take the back and look for his favorite rear-naked choke.
Maia can pull off any submission imaginable, but instead of overwhelming his opponent with options, he chooses to rely on the oldest choke in the book. At this point, opponents know Maia is looking for the rear-naked choke, but time and time again, he takes their back and catches them with it. What is so interesting about Maia is that he does not use a wide variety of techniques like you might expect. Instead, he relies on the same passes to mount and the same transitions to the back that he has perfected. His chaining attack of landing in half guard off a takedown, tripoding to force a butterfly hook, lacing his leg into the dope mount and passing into full mount can be found in almost every one of his fights, yet nobody can stop it.
The sad but impressive part of Maia’s career is that he reached his height after his athletic prime. He did not join the UFC until he was 29 and went on his current 9-3 run from ages 37-41. He cannot land takedowns against the elite of the division like he once could, but at this point in his career, he has no business fighting guys like Covington and Kamaru Usman. Even when he did fight those young contenders, he gave them a tough fight. Expect the same for Askren.
Everyone wants to see how things play out on the ground, but they could nullify each other and give us five rounds of circling around the cage and jabbing. The striking advantage goes to Maia since he has held up against much better fighters. People also forget he busted up Covington on the feet in the first round of their fight. Since Maia likes to pull guard and has openly said he wants to test his jiu-jitsu against Askren’s folkstyle wrestling, perhaps we will get the grappling exhibition the fans want.