Demian Maia is a genius.
He is not just someone who creates his own methods, but someone who understands why other methods work and builds his game around principles rather than techniques.
Anyone who has watched a Maia seminar or his DVD series, or even an interview about his jiu-jitsu philosophy, and then watched one of his bouts on the ground, will understand just how brilliant his principle-based approach is.
While Maia has fallen out of favor in recent years, largely due to his attempts to round out his game, I still consider him one of the few brilliant examples of speed and science regularly overcoming size and strength.
Today we will muse a little on the role of BJJ in MMA, and then look at a few of Maia's most brilliant moments.
The role of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in MMA
Most fans have come to the realization that the Gracie family served its purpose in MMA by showing the world the efficacy of the grappling game. Though it is no longer competitive in mixed martial arts at the highest levels, the Gracie family still offers some of the best training available in that aspect of the game. However, one will still hear the occasional delusional statement from a senior Gracie about the fight game.
Most recently Royce Gracie criticized the younger members of the Gracie family, as per Guilherme Cruz of MMAfighting.com, in their attempts to round out their game for MMA competition because "Jiu-jitsu is enough."
Jiu-jitsu alone does not win fights anymore, and certainly an individual's style of BJJ will largely affect its efficacy in MMA matches.
For instance, Andre Galvao, an incredible top player, just couldn't get anything going when he failed to take down Tyron Woodley. Marcelo Garcia, arguably the best pound-for-pound grappler of all time, had a single MMA match, struggling so much with striking and attempting to sneak chokes in while hampered by 4 oz. gloves that he never attempted it again.
Roger Gracie failed to make a great transition, yet someone he has bested on several occasions as a grappler, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, just smoked Yushin Okami's boots in one round and has not had much trouble getting most of his opponents to the mat. Evidently, brilliant BJJ does not mean MMA-applicable BJJ.
One of the wonderful things about Maia's BJJ is that it is not only well suited to the transition to MMA, but it is especially beautiful against larger, stronger opponents. Here are a few of his more beautiful moments, as he used his technical prowess and timing to overcome bigger, stronger, equally skilled opponents.
You know Gabriel Gonzaga. He's the humongous Brazilian who knocked Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic out with a high kick. He's also a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, an accomplished grappling competitor and a 260-pound giant. Despite the significant size difference between the two, he and Maia met at least twice in jiu-jitsu competition, and both videos are spectacular.
This first bout is perhaps my favourite exhibition of Maia's skills in his entire combat-sports career. The first half of this bout is a clinic in how to defend the guard pass and how to stay serene under a great deal of pressure.
After three minutes of defending everything "Napao" can throw at him, Maia finds himself in butterfly guard. As Gonzaga begins to move around Maia, Maia under-hooks Gonzaga's leg and uses his opposite-side hook to elevate Gonzaga overhead. Threading his under-hook side-leg through, he achieves X-guard for a brief moment before performing a technical stand-up and attempting to run through Gonzaga into a takedown.
Gonzaga manages to stop the attempt, and the two go back to Maia's guard until at 6:20 of the video Gonzaga attempts to step over Maia's guard and is quickly swept to his back while looking for a compression lock on Maia's knee. Maia escapes and battles the rest of the bout from the top.
In the second recorded meeting of the two Maia shows that though his sweeping game is slick, he can certainly still submit opponents from the bottom. After a period attacking from the bottom (with his usual X-guard antics) Maia finds himself in half guard, defending a pass. From here Maia is able to take a beautiful triangle.
Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza might be the scariest Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter in mixed martial arts right now. The man is a submission machine and, as evidenced by his starching of Yushin Okami a few weeks back, he's a pretty nasty all-around fighter as well.
Jacare is of course remembered for his performances at the highest levels of competitive jiu-jitsu, including his series of bouts with the great Roger Gracie.
Maia's bout with Jacare was another beautiful display of Maia's comfort and skill on his back, as he immediately pulled guard on the world-class top player. Maia worked on arm drags, as Jacare postured and looked to break free of Maia's grips.
One of the beautiful and simple wrinkles of Maia's guard game is that he will gladly abandon his grips to kick out and attack a single-leg takedown from the bottom position. In the first minute of his bout with Jacare, Maia released his grip on Jacare's left arm from a butterfly guard in order to kick out and attack Jacare's right leg with a single-leg takedown.
The majority of the bout, however, was spent with Maia on Jacare's back after another successful X-guard kick-out to standing. Just as with Gonzaga, Maia under-hooked Jacare's leg, kicked him out into X-guard and followed Jacare up to his feet, keeping Jacare's leg off of the floor.
Throwing Chael Sonnen
Submitting Chael Sonnen from guard is not really a unique feat. It is a pretty commonplace occurrence on his record. When Sonnen met Maia it was assumed that the fight would take place from Maia's guard and end in a submission, but Maia surpassed all expectation by hitting a beautiful throw and moving straight into a triangle as the elite wrestler was still recovering from being dumped.
It became obvious early on that Maia would like to get top position on Sonnen, as he shot repeatedly for takedowns and pulled butterfly guard when he was inevitably sprawled on.
Maia's sweep from the clinch along the fence and move directly into a triangle was completely unexpected, however, and he pulled it off so seamlessly in the confusion of the moment that he either practiced the combination or is super-humanly smooth.
Demian Maia, much like Saulo Ribeiro or Ryan Hall, has such a methodical and principle-led approach to jiu-jitsu that I am certain that he could become a very slick striker if he put in the time and identified the principles. The unfortunate downside to this is that there are only so many hours in the day.
When Maia focuses on his striking, his jiu-jitsu seems to lose a step. When he focuses on his jiu-jitsu, his opponents know what is coming and work their hardest to shut it down.
Demian Maia may be in limbo right now as he tries to progress his career in a new division, but for some time he was catching people out even when they tried their hardest to stop him on the ground, which is definitely worth some appreciation.
Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking from his blog, Fights Gone By.
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