Demian Maia has waited a long time for this.
In order to earn Saturday’s welterweight title fight against champion Tyron Woodley in the co-main event of UFC 214, Maia had to build a seven-fight win streak dating back to May 2014.
At times during those three undefeated years, it felt as though matchmakers were going to make him keep winning fights until there was no one else left to grant a title shot.
So that’s exactly what the 39-year-old Brazilian jiu-jitsu master did.
Dubbed “The Man Who Doesn’t Throw Punches” by Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Snowden in May 2017, Maia used his distinctive brand of submission grappling to defeat an increasingly difficult string of competition inside the Octagon—until UFC head honchos could no longer ignore him.
Why the protracted ordeal?
Partly, it was style points.
For obvious reasons, the UFC has an easier time selling cold-eyed knockout artists to its fight-hungry fans. In a world still driven by pay-per-view buyrates, the company would love to have a hundred clones of Conor McGregor—with his cocksure attitude, copious tattoos and brick-heavy left hand.
Maia is the antithesis of that. The low-key BJJ ace doesn’t talk trash, style or profile, and he’ll only engage in fisticuffs if you force him. So, yeah, that makes him a tough sell at $60 a pop in high definition.
Partly, it was because the UFC had been burned on a Maia title shot before.
The last time the world’s largest MMA promotion allowed Maia the chance to fight for a championship, it was at middleweight. In April 2010, Maia traveled to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to take on Anderson Silva at UFC 112.
The results were far from ideal. In fact, their fight is still regarded as one of the worst title matches in UFC history.
In the sweltering heat, Silva spent 25 minutes toying with the obviously overmatched Maia. The champion eventually secured a unanimous-decision win, but UFC President Dana White laid into him at the post-fight press conference.
"I don't think I've ever been more embarrassed in the 10 years of being in this business," White said, via MMA Fighting’s Michael David Smith. "It was the most horrible thing I have ever seen."
Perhaps aside from possessing a fighting style that isn’t the company’s favorite, it has taken Maia seven years to live down that underwhelming spectacle.
For that reason, this matchup with Woodley presents more than just an opportunity to win UFC gold. It’s also a chance for Maia to come full circle, erase the poor performances of his past and declare that a pure grappler can still be the best in the world in 2017.
Make no mistake, Maia’s style is a singularity in the modern UFC landscape. While the rest of MMA has evolved at a breakneck pace during its near-25-year-history in America, Maia chooses to rely on a traditional martial arts skill set.
Perhaps more accurately, he’s tried all this newfangled striking stuff and decided it’s not for him.
After going a respectable but more middling 12-6 fighting in the Octagon from 2007 to 2014, he’s caught fire during the last few years. Not coincidentally, you can pair that unlikely late-career resurgence with Maia’s conscious decision to go back to basics.
By recommitting himself to his world-class jiu-jitsu skills, Maia has eliminated some tools from his toolbox, but he’s also closed some holes in his game. Simply put, yes, he is really that good at this.
So good, that all of his opponents know exactly what he’s going to do, and they still can’t stop him.
"The best fighters make their opponents fight their fight," coach Brandon Gibson said (via Snowden). Gibson trains recent Maia victim Carlos Condit. "You know Maia wants to go to the ground. You know he wants to advance position. You know he wants to be in mount or take the back. And he just gets there. There's no secret to what he does. He's just the best at it."
When Maia talks about jiu-jitsu, he takes on a borderline proselytizing air, referencing its propensity to sharpen practitioners’ "self-consciousness and [ability] to understand yourself better" as much as how it makes him a successful professional athlete.
"I have a mission to share jiu-jitsu with the world," Maia told Snowden. "I have something beautiful to share with people and a big platform, which is the UFC. I know that when I am fighting, there are many people who are influenced by me. So, I've got to use that to bring what I love to everyone.”
In Woodley, Maia faces the most difficult stylistic matchup of his current seven-fight run. The champion mixes heavy-handed strikes with a wrestling background he honed at the University of Missouri.
If Maia can’t take him down and keep him there long enough to work for a submission, this bout reads as an easy KO victory for Woodley. As such, he’s going off as about a 2-1 favorite, according to Odds Shark.
Then again, Maia has been beating the odds for the entirety of his recent UFC career.
If he can do it one more time and become welterweight champion, it’ll strike a blow for grapplers everywhere.
And the UFC will have a champion who makes his living by un-mixing the martial arts.