The last time they fought on a card together, at UFC 95 in early 2009, Demian Maia had only vague notions of Junior dos Santos, and vice-versa. That night, dos Santos destroyed Stefan Struve in a 54-second knockout, and Maia needed only half a round to submit Chael Sonnen.
As is often the case in the Brazilian fight scene, it was Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira who brought the two together a few months later when Maia -- one of the best jiu-jitsu players in the game -- was looking to improve his boxing. Dos Santos had stand-up prowess, but needed experience on the floor. It became a Brazilian ying/yang, and heading into UFC 131, where both guys are slotted on the main card with pretty big stakes, the relationship continues.
“Yes, Junior’s a very good friend and a training partner,” Maia said on Tuesday from Vancouver. “But actually, I don’t box with him too much because he’s too heavy, but we do a lot of jiu-jitsu. Our coach doesn’t put us together sparring, especially as we get near the fights. I think he’s afraid I’ll get hurt because he’s much heavier than I am. But in jiu-jitsu there’s no problems because I can control the actions well, so we spar BJJ.”
Dos Santos may not spar with the much smaller middleweight, but he offers plenty of pugilistic pointers to Maia when they train in northeast Brazil. Maia’s stand-up game has improved from incrementally to drastically over the last four fights. And while just about everybody who thinks analytically wonders just how good on the ground dos Santos is -- he’s 6-0 in the UFC with four KOs -- Maia is source material on the matter.
“He picks it up very fast,” Maia said. “He’s a very talented athlete. He has like five years in combat sports, but you can tell in his boxing how fast he picks it up. Same thing with his jiu-jitsu; he picks it up very fast -- it’s impressive how fast.
“One nice thing is he doesn’t have an ego when he trains, so if he’s feeling that he has some issue in a position, whether it’s top or bottom, he puts you in that position. He doesn’t care if he gets beat. That’s very important, I think, if you want to learn Brazilian jiu-jitsu. You don’t care about the ego. He wants to learn. Even when he gets beat in a position, he doesn’t care, he wants to learn the position. That’s why I think he will be the next heavyweight champion.”
Obviously the book is out on Maia. Fighters want to avoid getting supine with him -- lest they end up like a pretzel. He faces the heavy-handed wrestler Mark Munoz this weekend and, if Munoz does the conventional play, he’ll look to engage in a stand-up battle. Meanwhile dos Santos gets Shane Carwin for the No. 1 contender spot in the heavyweight division. The presumption there is that, if one doesn’t knock out the other in short violent order, Carwin’s ace in the hole is to take matters to the ground.
Only Maia truly knows if that’s deep water for dos Santos heading into the fights.