Mixed martial arts is a brutal, dangerous sport.
It takes serious stones and a wee bit o' crazy to step into that Octagon. At least from what I can tell sitting outside the cage—I'll claim sanity keeps me from tossing my well-being to the wind and leave the other possibilities to the comment section.
Nevertheless, a lot of practitioners will tell you the actual fight is the easy part; it's the training that's the killer.
Chael Sonnen would probably disagree with the former sentiment at the moment.
His battle of bloody attrition against Nate "The Great" Marquardt has landed him on the "Cannot Come Out and Play" list. If the new-now-not No. 1 challenger at middleweight could've avoided a little more of the damage he absorbed from Marquardt at UFC 109: Relentless, he might be fighting for the title in April.
That's because Vitor "The Phenom" Belfort would testify to the peril of practice from now until Lent.
Or is Lent over?
I'm a heathen raised in the Bay Area so those finer details got lost in translation.
The point is that Belfort hurt his shoulder preparing for his super-bout against Anderson "The Spider" Silva that was to take place on April 10. The pair of MMA legends were to headline the card as the Ultimate Fighting Championship officially opens its doors to the Arab world at UFC 112: Invincible (cough, definition of irony) in the United Arab Emirates.
The grappling mecca of Abu Dhabi was to host the first sincere threat to the Spider's Middleweight Championship belt since, I don't know, Moses came down the mountain?
And, yes, I'm comparing "Dangerous" Dan Henderson to Moses.
It had been decided that Belfort and his furious hands were going to be just the thing to neutralize Silva's exceptionally accurate striking.
Additionally, the Phenom is a former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion and has taken out the likes of Wanderlei "The Axe-Murderer" Silva, Randy "The Natural" Couture, Gilbert "The Hurricane" Yvel, and David "Tank" Abbot; i.e. he's had pleasant experiences with enormous adversaries and plenty of them. The Spider is a huge middleweight, but size obviously doesn't matter to Vitor.
Buy it or not, the angle had gained traction against the Brazilian Champion's 11-fight win streak, covering four years and two weight classes.
Alas, that Forrest Gump smiley face should've said, "Injuries Happen".
With both Belfort and Sonnen on the shelf for the immediate future, a new No. 1 contender has stepped into the void and will face Anderson Silva for the title at UFC 112.
Demian Maia, I hope you're ready for your close-up.
Because you're about to get it. Ready or not. Let's all hope it's the former.
After the Brazilian jiu jitsu ace defeated Dan Miller at UFC 109, I had a chance to talk to him as the press conference was dissolving. He couldn't have been any more impressive.
This was a guy coming off a hard-fought, three-round unanimous decision victory so he had to be exhausted. He was rocking a black eye as well as a split eyelid and speaking a difficult, non-native language.
Not only that, Maia had just endured a 30-minute presser, the majority of which was dedicated to open lusting over an antagonist he'd beaten handily (Sonnen). A guy who was next in line for a shot at the brass ring—this was before the Belfort injury happened so Sonnen was still above Demian on the middleweight ladder.
Despite all that, the 32-year-old responded with thoughtful and respectful answers. He even grasped my hand in both of his with a bow and thanked me when the "interview" was done.
It was unreal.
Maia first became a favorite competitor of mine when I heard him say he wanted to become the best in a combat sport without hurting anyone. Prior to his knockout at the hands of Marquardt at UFC 102, his stated mission was a real possibility since his opponent could usually submit before any lasting harm was done (by the appendage wrapped around his windpipe).
However, with a new premium placed on his striking in the wake of that defeat, could Maia still follow through on his intentions?
With a sheepishly wide grin, he seemed to think so.
"Hey, I didn't hurt anybody. But [the grin fading a bit] I do consider myself a mixed martial artist and part of that is respecting your opponent. I want to go out there and win and I will do whatever is necessary to do that, but I still would not like to hurt him badly."
Clearly, the man's preference is still for the submission and sparing his opposite number as much woe as possible. What then of the second round against Miller, a round conspicuously absent of any interest in the ground?
"I don't listen to the bad things people say; I don't let them control how I fight. But I did want to show that I have been working on my striking. I still have work to do and I will do it, but I felt good."
Nonetheless, old habits die hard. The first UFC fighter to win three consecutive Submissions of the Night took the action back to the canvas in the third round. I asked him how that fit into his strategy.
The grin was back.
"I had already shown my striking. At the start of the last round, I knew I had the victory if I could get the fight on the ground and that's what I did."
Can't argue with that logic, can you?
Those of you who've seen the dynamo exhibit his joint-tweaking, ligament-straining wares know doing so would be unwise.
Granted, it's not even remotely conceivable that this mild-mannered and soft-spoken dude could go Warren Sapp on a wayward inquisitor.
Which is why I didn't hesitate to ask him about Sonnen's sudden ascension past him in the middleweight ranks. After all, Maia thumped the Oregonian ex-wrestler at UFC 95 and did it in Sonnen's territory—throwing Sonnen down to the mat and beautifully transitioning into a triangle choke for his fourth Submission of the Night in five outings.
The entire sequence took all of 160 seconds.
Yet Sonnen's dismantling of the Great (plus two other impressive triumphs) combined with Maia's thunderous loss to Marquardt had slingshotted the American right into the No. 1 slot (a slot that now belongs to Maia).
Shoot, I was a little disgruntled at the superficial injustice. Maia? Not so much.
"It doesn't bother me because I know my chance will come. Chael had a good fight tonight [at UFC 109] and he beat a tough guy. He deserves it because he is fighting really good right now...he won two fights before this, too."
When I pressed about the fact that an opponent he'd beaten was now in line for a title shot despite Maia only having the single loss in 13 bouts, he didn't bite.
"The loss against Marquardt was a bad one and it puts you back, but you have to recover. It happens; now I just have to work my way back up the list."
As it turns out, the former Abu Dhabi Combat Club World Champion's work had already been done.
We're less than a week removed from that Saturday night. In the short span, the Belfort injury and the immediacy of the date with Anderson Silva have conspired to nuke the best laid plans.
From their wreckage, the right gladiator has emerged to save the day.
Demian Maia will be a colossal underdog against one many consider to be the best mixed martial artist in the world, but he will understand the challenge and has no illusions about what needs to be done.
More importantly, he'll be class to the very end.
Even if it's bitter.