This past weekend at UFC 156, Demian Maia put the entire welterweight division on notice. The Brazilian submission ace earned a lopsided unanimous-decision victory over perennial contender Jon Fitch and, in the process, solidified his position in the upper tier of what is arguably the UFC's most stacked division.
The victory over the AKA-staple was Maia's third consecutive since dropping down to the 170-pound weight class. The fashion in which he defeated Fitch and steamrolled Rick Story has made it clear to see the 35-year-old's skill set poses some interesting problems for his peers in the divisional elite.
While his victory over Story was impressive, sweeping the cards against a gritty veteran the likes of Fitch is on a different level. Maia's win at UFC 156 proved he is a force to be reckoned with at 170 pounds, and the Brazilian jiu-jitsu phenom's sudden entry into the welterweight division's title race couldn't have come at a more interesting time.
In five weeks, six of the top fighters in the weight class are set to square off at UFC 158. When the smoke clears from this batch of high-profile dust-ups, it is possible Maia could find himself within striking distance of a potential title shot.
Back to Basics
When Maia entered the UFC fold back in 2007, he wasted little time making his presence known. The Team Wand fighter was successful in his first five bouts in the middleweight division, earning impressive submission finishes in each outing and building solid momentum toward a title shot. That progress was eventually halted by the right hand of Nate Marquardt as the former Strikeforce welterweight champion scored a first-round knockout in their tilt at UFC 102.
Maia would bounce back in his next fight against Dan Miller, but a lopsided loss to middleweight king Anderson Silva at UFC 112 once again silenced the buzz surrounding the Brazilian grappling ace.
Following his loss to "The Spider," Maia found varying success as he won three of his next five. Unfortunately for Maia, the two losses he suffered during that stretch, to Mark Munoz and Chris Weidman, served to eliminate him entirely from the 185-pound title picture.
Another interesting footnote in Maia's middleweight journey was his decision to work a more standup-heavy approach. Where he dominated the opposition on the ground in his earlier bouts, Maia seemed to abandon his greatest strength during the final leg of his middleweight run.
Undoubtedly, Maia was on a quest to become a more well-rounded fighter, but his performances suffered in the process. In the aftermath of his loss to Weidman at UFC on Fox 2, it became clear that Maia needed to make a change in his approach. That decision not only came with a new weight class, but a return to his original style, which has yielded impressive results.
In all three of his welterweight bouts, Maia has wasted zero time getting down to business. His debut in the weight class against Dong Hyun Kim may have ended due to a freak injury 47 seconds into the bout, but it was still the result of Maia putting the "Stun Gun" on the canvas. In his next outing against Story, Maia attacked from the opening bell and only needed half a round to finish the Brave Legion fighter with a vicious neck crank.
It was a similar story against Fitch in Las Vegas, as Maia immediately went for the takedown against the former Purdue University wrestling standout. It wasn't long before Maia took Fitch's back, a position he would hold for the majority of the fight. Despite not being able to lock on a fight-ending submission against the former No. 1 contender, Maia's ability to control one of the division's most dominant grapplers was an impressive feat.
The UFC welterweight fold is chock full of fighters who rely on their wrestling skills to drive their success. If Maia's first three welterweight showings are any indication of his potential to progress in the race to the top of the 170-pound pecking order, it is safe to say the four-time "Submission of the Night" winner is the latest threat to emerge in the division.
A Possible Title Shot on the Horizon
At the current time, it is difficult to know exactly where Maia stands in the welterweight title picture, but it would be difficult to imagine his name isn't jotted somewhere near the top of the list. With the upcoming welterweight showcase at UFC 158, it seems likely that one of the fighters competing on that card will be standing opposite Maia in the near future.
The UFC's decision to bypass surging contender Johny Hendricks and grant Nick Diaz a title shot against Georges St-Pierre came with a fair share of controversy. While the current trend of making title fights has been anything but predictable, if "Bigg Rigg" emerges victorious from his bout with Jake Ellenberger, it would be criminal for him not to be given the next title opportunity.
On the other hand, should "The Juggernaut" score a win over Hendricks in Montreal, Ellenberger versus Maia is a bout that would make sense. The former Marine is still attempting to regain the momentum lost from his defeat against Martin Kampmann, and would likely still be a win or two out from a title shot.
Perhaps a more likely option would come from the winner of the rematch between Rory MacDonald and former interim champion Carlos Condit. "The Natural Born Killer" recently came up short in his bid to unify the divisional titles, and his road back to contention would include putting together a few solid wins. A potential bout between Condit and Maia would be an interesting stylistic matchup on multiple levels and a great opportunity to gauge Maia's position in the weight class.
The same can be said for a potential bout between Maia and MacDonald. The 24-year-old British Columbia-native has been heralded as the future of the weight class and has looked more impressive with each showing. MacDonald's ground and pound is of the brutal variety, and it would be interesting to see how the young Canadian would handle the threat Maia brings to the table. Add in the fact that MacDonald and St-Pierre are teammates at Tri-Star and even with a victory over Condit, a title fight between the two Canadian stars would be a long shot.
If both Firas Zahabi-trained fighters find success at UFC 158, MacDonald would most likely take another fight before title talk emerged, and this series of events would set the table nicely for a MacDonald versus Maia show down later this year.
Another possible option would be a bout with Nick Diaz. But a potential matchup featuring two of MMA's slickest submission artists throwing down their grappling magic deserves its own full-length article.