Since we’re in the business of musing over the clay perceptions of casual fans, you have to wonder how lay viewers took in the Demian Maia/Chris Weidman fight that opened a national television broadcast on Saturday night.
For instance, if you’d tuned in and saw Maia gassing though parts of the second round and the entirety of the third, you might have thought it was he who had to cut 31 pounds in 11 days to make weight. You might have also suspected that Maia’s only chance of beating Weidman was a simple puncher’s. After all, he was winging that left with hopes of a homerun.
Maia looked like a one-dimensional fighter, whose single dimension wasn’t all that imposing.
Now, if you are anything more than the casual fan, the performance against Weidman begged the question that’s been looming since the 21-second knockout at the hands of Nate Marquardt in 2009 -- what happened to the Maia of old? Who is this imposter that walks out to “Vida Bandida?” Wasn’t Maia the best Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner in the game, who for a while there people began referring to as Royce Gracie 2.0?
Maybe the hackers who have plagued the UFC all week have greater reach than we know. Maybe they have the ability to hack into UFC fighters now, and redirect them from world-class jiu-jitsu players into vague kickboxers. Or maybe Maia was hurt, or sick, or confused. It’s possible he was disenchanted that Michael Bisping became Chris Weidman. It must be something, but the former No. 1 contender has gone from being 5-0 in the UFC with five ridiculously fluid submissions to 9-4 in the UFC with five ridiculously fluid submissions.
It started by getting knocked out by Marquardt in Portland at UFC 102, and since then in seven fights he’s gone the distance seven times. In all of them we’ve been applauding the slow evolution of his stand-up. Somewhere along the way Maia took criticism of his stand-up to heart, and became obsessed with doing something about it. This seemed obvious. When he surprised Mark Munoz a couple of times at UFC 131, we began to think him more than capable on the feet. And he is.
But the problem is Maia has forgotten who he is. A timely reminder on Fox would have been a welcoming relief, but the nonpareil jitz master has changed focus.
It used to be that if you went to the floor with Maia it became a matter of time until you tapped. Chael Sonnen, Ed Herman, Jason MacDonald, Nate Quarry -- these guys caught hell for mistakes, for over-aggressiveness, for simply finding themselves on the ground. If Maia was on his back, he would sweep. He was mean in a scramble. He was quick to snatch limbs. If he got your back, it was a matter of time. Maia made guys feel paranoid about being on the ground. He wasn’t just good at triangles, he was a Bermuda triangle, where contenders -- wrestlers, boxers and otherwise -- disappeared.
Now Maia’s jiu-jitsu has gone AWOL, and it’s curious. Even the threat of it has vanished.
Against the wrestler Weidman, Maia was officially 0-7 on takedowns, but they all played out as half commitments. Truth is, it didn’t look like he really wanted to go to the ground. Weidman, also a solid BJJ player, wasn’t afraid to take it there, and did so a couple of times late in rounds. For a jiu-jitsu superior like Maia, who had uncanny Octagon control in his arsenal at one point in the career, it’s become OK to allow opponents to dictate terms. Which is not OK for sustaining a career.
Weidman did it. And so did Munoz. Against Jorge Santiago at UFC 136, Maia had things in his realm but settled on ground-and-pound. Maia at 34 looks less wise than the one who fought at 30. This is not an ideal trajectory.
What happened to the quiet contortionist that capitalized on every misstep? In those first five UFC fights, Maia took home "submission of the night" honors four times. That’s a lot of extra cash. Since then he has not been awarded a single end of the night bonus. If his stand-up has improved, that’s great; but all new elements should be working toward the one element that made him special -- his jiu-jitsu. Otherwise, the admission seems to be that either people have caught up to him, or that jiu-jitsu and Maia are no longer on speaking terms, or that he doesn’t trust jiu-jitsu to get the job done anymore.
Whatever the case with Maia is, it’s mysterious. And you get the feeling that if he doesn’t rediscover his roots soon, he’ll be done in the UFC.