It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Gray Maynard in the cage.
Since his last bout (an uninspiring affair with Clay Guida), Maynard has been on the sidelines, rehabbing a leg injury while watching the rest of the lightweight division go on without him.
Much has changed since Maynard last fought for the mantle of lightweight king, back at UFC 136 in October 2011.
Since that time, he’s seen his conqueror dethroned by Benson Henderson, who has in turn defended his title three times and is but one victory away from becoming the most successful UFC champion the division has ever seen.
Meanwhile, Frankie Edgar has been in high-profile fights ever since, headlining both cards in his battles with Henderson and then again against pound-for-pound notable Jose Aldo.
At UFC 160, Maynard will look to step back into what is now a very crowded room, and waiting to greet him at the door is a very tough and capable fighter in TJ Grant, who looks to make a statement at Maynard’s expense.
This is by no means an easy bout for “The Bully,” at least on paper, but he’s in a division that is perhaps the toughest in the sport and Grant is just one example of this.
There will be no easy touches for him in the foreseeable future, and while he may have aims at knocking Henderson off his perch, he’s got a lot of work to do in order to get within striking distance.
Anytime a fighter suffers a devastating loss, it seems to haunt their steps for quite a while. When you couple that with the frustrating experience of trying to chase Clay Guida down for the better part of 25 minutes, and a lengthy rehab following injury after that, things that once seemed clear suddenly seem cloudy.
Here are the three basic questions we have about Gray Maynard as he returns to action on May 25, 2013.
It’s been nearly a year since Gray Maynard stepped into the cage to face Clay Guida. That's a long layoff for anyone in the sport, let alone a 34-year-old.
There can be no doubt that Maynard is a dedicated athlete who has been training very hard to overcome his injury and get back into fighting shape. He’s been the full 25 minutes on two occasions so he knows the requirements of fighting at the top level.
But ring rust is a very real concern in the fight game and there is no real substitute for actually fighting in the cage.
We know Maynard is a powerful fighter with a great wrestling core and heavy punches—all things he will no doubt carry with him into the cage against Grant.
But what about his timing, footwork and ability to gauge distances for strikes or takedowns?
Will he be able to get into a favorable rhythm early in the bout, or will he be a step behind the music and reacting instead of enacting his own game plan?
Usually, when strong wrestlers find themselves in that position, they rush in for a takedown in an attempt to try to reach out and pull the fight into their world.
Against Grant, Maynard will be facing a man who has recorded 13 submission victories, many of them via armbar. Should Maynard fail to set up his takedowns, he may very well hand Grant another submission victory.
Of course, Rashad Evans was in the same spot when he fought Tito Ortiz the second time, and the time off seemed to rejuvenate him as Evans took Ortiz apart in dramatic fashion.
The first few rounds will likely show if Maynard is sharp or not.
It is impossible to say how devastating a knockout loss is for any fighter. They all react differently, and this is a profession where they face that possibility every day.
But for a man as competitive as Maynard, it must have been awful.
It was his second chance at UFC gold, and in their rubber match, he once again blasted Frankie Edgar all over the Octagon in the very first frame.
To see that momentum unravel as the fight wore on, and then to be finished so convincingly, was no doubt a crushing moment for Maynard—especially in a title fight.
It was also the very first time he had lost via KO in his professional career, which can drastically alter how a fighter fights from there on out. When a fighter has the kind of power in his fists that Maynard possesses, it’s much easier to let those hands go with conviction when you’ve never been seriously hurt by return fire.
Lastly, that loss to Maynard is still fresh given his inactivity of late. His split-decision victory over Guida probably did little to wash the taste of UFC 136 out of his mouth.
If Maynard hopes to compete in the division and earn another title shot, he’s got to let those hands go like never before or else the opposition has little to fear in a stand-up fight. In turn, this would make those takedowns a bit harder to get than before.
While some may think this is a bout tailor-made for Maynard, Grant possesses many threats and is undefeated since dropping to lightweight. He is currently riding a four-fight win streak that saw him win Fight of the Night honors against Evan Dunham and seal a KO victory over Matt Wiman in January of this year.
Grant is likely to be stronger than Maynard expects. He also has a lot of momentum and desire coming in to this bout, especially with the winner getting a title shot at the champ.
This is going to be a long, grueling fight for both men. If Maynard isn’t mentally ready to rise to the occasion, round-by-round, he could find himself losing this bout via decision or submission.
Maynard is still one of the strongest and toughest men in the division, but he needs to be “The Bully” all night long in this fight if he wants to put the rest of the class at 155 on notice.
Given how close he was to becoming the champion, he no doubt expects nothing less of himself.