Gray Maynard Vs. Nate Diaz: A Pivotal Fight for the Lightweight Division

Mitchell CiccarelliAnalyst IJanuary 3, 2010

After Lightweight champion B.J Penn’s demolition of Diego Sanchez at UFC 107 and a dominant performance prior to that over Kenny Florian at UFC 101, it’s difficult to imagine anyone in the division standing a chance against “The Prodigy” in 2010.

Penn’s supremacy in the 155-pound weight class is similar to the domination displayed by Welterweight champ, Georges St. Pierre, and Middleweight ruler, Anderson Silva. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for the UFC to market legitimate contenders when the reigning champs are running through them as if it were a walk in the park.

Penn has already demolished four top contenders in Joe Stevenson, Sean Sherk, Florian, and Sanchez. The manner in which he disposed of them doesn’t make it easy for the UFC to promote rematches between any of the four fallen contenders and the reigning champion anytime soon; so Penn is running out of challenges at lightweight.

Currently there are two fighters being considered for a title shot against Penn. Gray Maynard and Frankie Edgar are on hot win-streaks. Neither has tasted defeat at the hands of Penn yet, so either would be intriguing matchups for “The Prodigy.”

Edgar was defeated by the bigger wrestler in Maynard in 2008, but has since bounced back with impressive victories over Hermes Franca, Sherk and Matt Veach. Maynard, on the other hand, boasts an unbeaten record with wins over Edgar, Rich Clementi, Jim Miller and Roger Huerta.

Surely, Maynard seems more deserving of a title shot than Edgar does, considering he already holds a victory over him; but Edgar’s win over former champ Sherk could give “The Answer” an edge as far as title contention is concerned.

Nonetheless, both will have to win one more fight before earning the proverbial shot at Penn’s title. Edgar is rumored to compete in front of his hometown crowd in New Jersey at UFC 111 against a to-be-announced opponent. Maynard is set to collide with Ultimate Fighter winner, Nate Diaz, at UFC Fight Night 20 next week on Spike TV.

Maynard vs. Diaz may not seem like a high-profile bout on paper; but it is a very important matchup for the lightweight division and will set a blueprint for all future title fights in 2010. Maynard was already defeated by Diaz in the semifinals of season five of TUF in an exhibition bout that didn’t count against his professional record.

Much has changed since then, so it’s going to be interesting to see how this fight plays out. Let’s take a look at the scenarios for the winner of the bout and what it would mean for the 155-pound division in the next few months.


If Gray Maynard is victorious, “The Bully” will get the next title shot

Maynard’s nickname “The Bully” is a picture perfect way to describe his fighting style. With strength that would make Hercules jealous, Maynard bullies his opponents around the cage with his powerful wrestling base and overwhelming ground control.

Recently, the All-American wrestler has tightened up his boxing ability along with his submission defense, making “The Bully” even more difficult to deal with than before.

Maynard was caught in a triangle choke when he fought Diaz on season five, but it isn’t likely to happen again. Maynard should be expected to defeat Diaz much like Clay Guida and Joe Stevenson did, by out-wrestling the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ace to earn a decision victory. If that were the case, Maynard would be determined as the new number one contender and would challenge Penn in mid-2010. 

What's interesting about that matchup is the fact that Penn and Maynard have trained together in the past and are actually longtime friends. In fact, if it weren’t for “The Prodigy,” Maynard may never have transitioned into MMA

Maynard failed to earn a berth on the 2004 US Olympic wrestling team and was considering retirement when he was recruited to be a sparring partner to help Penn prepare for a fight against Renzo Gracie. Maynard fell in love with the sport and made his MMA debut in 2006. Shortly thereafter, Maynard earned a spot on the fifth season of TUF and was Penn’s very first pick.

The UFC can bill this as a contest, pitting student against teacher, for the ultimate prize. Will the pupil be able to surpass his master and claim the championship? Or will the teacher lay a schoolyard beating on his former disciple?

It’s an interesting storyline that would generate some much-needed anticipation, considering Maynard is not known for finishing high-level opponents. Maynard’s wins are certainly impressive, but unless he’s finishing fights, fans aren’t going to view him as a legitimate threat to Penn’s throne.

Storylines can do wonders for promoting fights, so the UFC will jump all over the teacher vs. student plot and get the fans pumped up for the bout.

On paper, Penn would seem like the odds on favorite. But MMA isn’t a paper sport. Maynard is the strongest athlete in the lightweight division and is also the division’s best wrestler. You just can’t count out a guy like that, especially after watching Penn succumb to another powerful wrestler in Welterweight champ, St. Pierre at UFC 94. 

That fight was at a higher weight class against a much larger opponent; but still, Maynard is a huge 155-pounder and presents similar problems to Penn. However, Penn has looked like a monster ever since the St. Pierre fight and would be a safe bet to defeat Maynard when they eventually throw down.


If Nate Diaz wins, No. 1 contender will be undetermined

If there’s one thing that can be learned from this sport, it's that there is never a sure-thing for any fight. No matter how much a fighter is favored to win, anyone can be beat on any given night. It’s that type of unpredictability that makes MMA so much fun to watch.

It’s mind-boggling that everyone is looking past Diaz in this fight. Diaz has already submitted Maynard before so he very well could do the same thing again. His long reach-advantage frustrated Maynard in the first fight; and while Maynard has developed his striking over the years, the long reach of Diaz will still be a problem for him in the octagon.

Maynard would be forced to take Diaz down; an area of the battlefield where Diaz is most dangerous. Maynard might be able to neutralize Diaz’s Jiu-Jitsu and stay out of submissions, but Diaz is like an electric eel off his back. He usually will always find a way to submit his foe.

Then again, we’ve seen Diaz controlled on the ground by strong wrestlers such as Guida and perhaps Maynard will be able to follow the same game-plan. On the chance that Diaz catches him and submits him once again, it would change the title picture drastically.

Diaz wouldn’t be the No. 1 contender because of his previous losses, so he would need at least another big win or two to earn that spot. Therefore Edgar will be pushed into war with Penn, unless “The Answer” loses his next fight before that.

This is why Joe Silva’s matchmaking for the lightweight division has been questioned by critics; because situations like this make things extremely confusing when it comes time to pick title challengers.

Top ranked fighters should be competing against other top ranked fighters; Edgar and Maynard should have been paired for a rematch to determine a clear-cut number one contender. Instead, they were given opponents lower on the food chain.

If both Maynard and Edgar suffer defeats in their next fight, the UFC will either be forced to put someone into the title picture too early (such as Diaz) or they will have no other choice but to set up a rematch between Penn and someone he has already vanquished, such as Florian or Stevenson.