I vividly remember Demian Maia's UFC debut back in October 2007.
It was UFC 77, and the one enduring memory I'll carry from that night—aside from Anderson Silva face-blasting Rich Franklin into oblivion for a second and final time—was Joe Rogan's reaction to Maia's debut.
Rogan, already a great jiu-jitsu practitioner himself and an aficionado of all things grappling, treated Maia as the second coming of the most dangerous fighter in the world, even though Maia was debuting on the preliminary. No casual UFC fan had ever heard of the Brazilian, but with the way Rogan talked him up, you couldn't help but believe Maia would walk into the Octagon and submit every opponent on his way to a fight with Silva.
The interesting thing is that it kinda, sorta happened just like that.
Maia submitted Ryan Jensen that night in the first round with a rear-naked choke. After that, he'd go on to submit four more middleweights, with only Jason MacDonald making it to the third frame. Maia was a throwback to the old UFC, when fighters mostly entered the Octagon with one skill. And like UFC pioneer Royce Gracie, Maia was really, really good at jiu-jitsu.
And then UFC 102 rolled around.
Maia, with five consecutive submissions to his name, stepped in the cage with Nate Marquardt, a former title contender. Twenty seconds or so after the fight began, Maia lunged into what appeared to be a head kick. It was an ill-fated attempt to test his nonexistent striking skills against a bruiser, and it did not work out so well for Maia.
For the first time in his career, Maia suffered a loss, and he was barely conscious when the results were announced by Bruce Buffer.
The loss to Marquardt was a little over four years ago. Over the course of his next seven fights, Maia fancied himself a striker, rarely even attempting to use the jiu-jitsu that made Joe Rogan's head explode on a regular basis. Maia chalked up a 4-3 record and decided to make the drop to welterweight after a loss to current middleweight champion Chris Weidman.
Maia debuted at welterweight at UFC 148, and it was like stepping in a time machine. Gone was the middling striker version of Maia; in his place was the submission artist who relentlessly went for takedowns, then continually tried to break your will before submitting you.
He defeated Dong Hyun Kim by injury, then neck-cranked Rick Story so hard that blood squirted from his mouth and nose, and then ultimately sent Jon Fitch packing from the UFC by dominating Fitch worse than anyone else had through his UFC tenure.
And now, two days from now, Maia steps in the cage with American jiu-jitsu expert Jake Shields.
It's a fantastic stylistic matchup, if only we see some grappling and not a kickboxing fight between two fighters who are much better grapplers than they are strikers.
That's a very real possibility, of course; Shields may have the talent to negate Maia's takedown and smothering control game. Shields, whom training partners have described to me as feeling like "a very heavy sandbag" when he's on top of you, may not be able to force his will on Maia.
But I'm hoping for the best. We're all hoping for the best. We aren't tuning in to see Maia and Shields punch or kick each other; we're watching because we want to see a nasty grappling battle between two of the very best to ever grapple in mixed martial arts.
And what of the potential results?
Shields is 2-2 in his last four welterweight bouts. I doubt anyone is ready to see him return to the cage with Georges St-Pierre just yet, even if a win over Maia means something. What it ultimately means for Shields, I don't know. But it means something.
But for Maia, a win means everything, because a win means a title shot. Or, at least it should.
This is not a perfect world and the UFC is not a perfect company. But if Maia can beat Shields—especially if he does so in impressive fashion—he is deserving of a crack at St-Pierre, if not because of his (prospective) four consecutive wins over top contenders, then certainly because Maia as a challenger makes the most sense out of anyone in the UFC's welterweight top-five rankings.
Now, the UFC's rankings are ultimately silly, because Dana White sanctioned them and then almost immediately turned on them once the voting media didn't agree with the storylines he wanted to promote. But we'll use them as a guide, because that's what they're intended to be.
Maia is currently ranked fourth in the division. The top-ranked challenger, Johny Hendricks, gets his shot next month at UFC 167. Carlos Condit is No. 2, and he's already faced St-Pierre and lost. Condit could earn a rematch in the next 12 months, but he's already booked to face Matt Brown in December, so he's out the window for now. And No. 3 is Rory MacDonald, who is training partners and friends with St-Pierre and has repeatedly stated that he won't fight St-Pierre, not even for the championship.
You can see how crystal clear the whole thing is. Maia is in perfect position, from a winning perspective, to jump into a title shot and help erase the memories from that awful night in Abu Dhabi when he challenged Silva for the middleweight title in one of the worst title fights in the history of the sport. He's also perfectly ranked, at least according to the UFC's silly official system.
The UFC's trips into Brazil often produce cards that seem meaningless to fans back in the United States. They're filled with talent you've never heard of, and there doesn't seem to be any weight to the broadcast. There's no cause and effect. Here are a bunch of guys, and they are fighting each other, and you can watch them fight each other or not. They don't feel important, even though they're very important for the UFC's long-term interests in Brazil.
But you don't care about the UFC's interests in Brazil. You want to see fights that have meaning, that have weight, and you're in luck this week. Maia vs. Shields is an important fight, at least for one of the fighters. And it could produce a challenger to Georges St-Pierre who is far more interesting than anyone else in the division right now.
That's a big deal, and I'll be watching.