UFC 211: He Could Be UFC Champion, and He Doesn't Throw Punches

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterMay 12, 2017

VANCOUVER, BC - AUGUST 27: Demian Maia of Brazil celebrates his submission victory over Carlos Condit of the United States in their welterweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Rogers Arena on August 27, 2016 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Thirty seconds into his fight with Demian Maia, it's already over for Carlos Condit. He may not know it yet, but the end is approaching; unflappable, unyielding, the ancient art of jiu-jitsu given new life by a man who's devoted himself to the religion of martial arts. 

Condit had prepared for this moment for two months. He knew Maia would try to push him into the cage. He knew he'd use a single leg takedown attempt to do it. He knew once he was on the ground that Maia would overwhelm and envelop—a human ocean seemingly covering every inch of his body, impossible to escape. 

He practiced studiously to avoid it, every day an emotional battle, with frustration boiling over every time his back touched the mat. Once he was there, Condit knew it was a matter of waiting Maia out, battering him from the bottom and hoping the referee stood the two men up.

Getting up against a man like Maia was out of the question. The trick was not going to the ground in the first place.

"The best fighters make their opponents fight their fight," Condit's coach Brandon Gibson said. "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. Our first job was to highlight how he gets to the position where he controls the back. How does he get to that position and how can we stop him? We looked for glimpses of success against him and created a plan to minimize what he does well and concentrate on what Carlos does best."

A plan is a good start. Intellectually, that all makes sense. But, against a man like Maia, nothing can prepare you for the experience of actually being there. For former opponents like Matt Brown, watching Condit struggle was all too familiar. 

"The one thing different I felt from him, different than every person I've ever fought or even trained with, was he didn't seem interested in chaining things together or transitioning from one technique to the next," Brown said. "He had an idea of what he wanted and he was going to go for that with a single-minded purpose until he got it. He was willing to live or die based on getting what he wanted.

"You don't really train with guys like that. I'd never competed against anyone like that before. Yes, I trained for the moment. But there are levels. And it's hard to find a guy as good as Demian Maia to train with."

Within a single minute, 60 ticks of the second hand, Condit found Maia on his back. Less than two minutes after the ringing of a bell kicked off the contest, Condit was giving in to Maia's pressure, turning his head to escape a wicked neck crank, accepting the inevitable rear-naked choke that he knew must surely follow. 

Maia choked Condit out in the first round.
Maia choked Condit out in the first round.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

"What can I say? Opponents, they know the techniques, but they don't know the details," Maia said. "They know that I like to do a certain kind of sweep and that I like to do submissions from the back. It's hard for them, though—because it's not just the basic technique, it's what is hiding behind the technique. Those are the details I work on and am learning every day."

It was low-key one of the most dominating performances the sport had seen in years, one elite athlete in complete control of another. And Maia did it all without throwing a single punch with bad intentions.

Carlos Condit was born to fight. A whirling dervish of kicks, punches and elbows, he's a non-stop cacophony of violence, good enough at one point to claim the honor of being the best welterweight on the planet. He's been in the cage with fighters who will be first-ballot Hall of Famers, men like the incomparable Georges St-Pierre.

In that time, he'd never looked out of place—until he found himself face to face with Demian Maia.

DALLAS, TX - MAY 10:  Demian Maia speaks to the media during the UFC 211 Ultimate Media Day at the House of Blues Dallas on May 10, 2017 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The most intimidating man in the UFC's welterweight division hardly looks the part. In a sport filled with tattooed wild men and musclebound trash talkers, he barely makes a peep, visually or sonically.

It's why, despite six consecutive wins against the best competition the welterweight division can offer, you've likely never heard of him unless you count yourself among the sport's hardcore fans. It's why he's fighting on the undercard of UFC 211 against Jorge Masvidal instead of against champion Tyron Woodley as athletic norms would suggest. 

Talking with Bleacher Report as he drove through the Brazilian countryside, this seeming rejection did little to raise Maia's blood pressure. He understands that Conor McGregor has lit a fire under the sport, overnight becoming the most popular attraction in UFC history. The result has been an endless stream of copycats. But, while he doesn't believe that's the only personality a promoter can sell to the public, he can accept the UFC's decision to prioritize others over him.

"UFC may be this giant company, but it is made up of people," Maia said in his heavily accented but pristine English. "And people have their preferences. You change people and the preferences change. For now, most people making decisions in UFC like standup fighting. That's a personal taste. Just like if I was the owner or made all the decisions for UFC, I would reward a lot of ground fighters. That's normal. People are biased towards what they like. It's a human being being a human being."

It's hard to imagine, as the conversation journeys from his early life as a martial-arts-obsessed kid to his current life as a martial-arts-obsessed adult, Maia getting too upset about anything. The closest he comes is when I ask him about the psychic and karmic results of possibly hurting an opponent in the cage, and he gently admonishes me for bringing up such a taboo subject in the days before he must fight.

"I cannot have these thoughts when I'm fighting," he said, simply but emphatically. "The style of jiu-jitsu I do isn't likely to lead to injury. It shouldn't lead to hurting your opponent, but sometimes that is a consequence. As an athlete, I cannot think about that."

Other than that, Maia is entirely composed, calm, polite and thoughtful. This, he says, is the product of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and why, at the age of 39, he's still willing to step into a steel cage to pit his will against another man's. 

"I have a mission to share jiu-jitsu with the world," he said. "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.

"It's a way to discover self-consciousness and to understand yourself better, to learn how to control yourself under pressure. All of these values, the things that are important in jiu-jitsu, are just as important in everyday life. This is something I can help give to other people."

To Maia, fighting is just something he does to support his real passion, a martial arts journey that started when he was four years old and discovered judo for the first time. Kung fu and other arts would follow. Brazilian jiu-jitsu, too expensive for his parents to afford, remained just out of reach, tantalizing and intriguing him from a distance.

By the time he started college, everything changed. After watching a local competition in Sao Paulo, Brazil, that saw jiu-jitsu players destroy traditional martial artists of all disciplines, Maia found a new meaning and purpose in life. 

Jiu-jitsu had taken the martial arts world by storm a few years earlier as Brazilian brothers Royce and Rickson Gracie dominated no-holds-barred competitions in America and Japan, and Maia was swept up in the excitement of it all. Inspired by the Gracies, the 19-year-old found his way to world champion Fabio Gurgel's gym and made the decision to devote himself to the most efficient and beautiful art he'd ever seen.

"Rickson was a guy who really influenced me, because of his mindset and his way of seeing things," Maia says. "I feel like I know Rickson, not personally, but through his approach. I admire his way and his belief in jiu-jitsu as an art where you can win without getting hurt or hurting your opponent. In terms of philosophy, I follow the mindset of Rickson and his belief in the strength of jiu-jitsu."   

Every morning, Maia got up and went to work. Later in the day, he'd attend class en route to a degree in journalism. In between, he trained at least twice a day. At night, he studied videos of the Gracies and other grappling greats and dreamed about jiu-jitsu.

Others his age had been in the sport for years before Maia had even begun. There was a lot of catching up to do. He was in a hurry to absorb it all, to learn everything there was to know, to become the very best in the world.  

"Training with Fabio Gurgel was like going to college for jiu-jitsu," Maia says. "A lot of athletes aren't great teachers. I was very lucky to find one who was. What really helped me advance quickly was teaching. That helped me jump ahead of many people because I was thrown into it. I was teaching sometimes five classes a day. It was like a private class for myself as well. I was training and teaching and in love. I was thinking about jiu-jitsu all day." 

In less than five years, Maia had earned a black belt from Gurgel, something that would normally take even the most promising student double that amount of time. But Maia was more than promising. He won national and world championships as both a brown and purple belt, and just six years into training, he won the prestigious World Cup.

"Just like anybody who excels in their craft, whether it's a musician or an artist, I think the beauty is in the details," Gibson said. "What makes Maia so good is that everything he does is perfect. The way he floats is perfect. The way he posts is perfect. He's always balanced, he's always in control. Jiu-jitsu is physics and geometry and he understands it. Mentally, he's a master."

The key to Maia's success is not just the details—it's that they are ever-changing. In some ways, in fact, Condit was a victim of Maia's obsession with incremental improvements. And he has Brown to blame for it. 

Though Maia eventually finished Brown with a choke in their 2016 bout, his early struggles to do so bothered him, lingering in his mind long after the fight was over. Brown had bested him in what is typically Maia's best position until a last-second, desperate attempt to pull victory from defeat led to a mistake. 

That wasn't good enough.

"I needed to understand some more details and studied it more and more," Maia said. "I did things differently and I worked and worked and soon I was submitting everyone from the back in training. By the time I fought Carlos Condit, I was in the same position I was in against Matt Brown but was able to submit him much faster."

In grappling, details are everything. And you can see it in the Condit fight. Instead of simply going for a choke, Maia grabbed ahold of Condit's shoulder with his left hand. This grip allowed him to crush Condit's face with a brutal neck crank, forcing him to choose between an agonizing hold and the danger of the choke, a hold Maia had previously used six times to secure a submission.

Condit turned his head to take his chances with the choke. Seconds later, it was over. The difference was in the details. 

"For people watching, it looks the same. It is hard to see," Maia said. "The pressure of my body. How I move my head. The angle I chose. These are small details. For the opponent, these things are hard to prepare for.

"Even though it looks like the same technique I used to do, it is not the same anymore. I added some details or I took some things away. I am in love with the technique because it is always changing. I am never the same. I do a different thing every time, even when it doesn't always look like it."

It's this passion for perfection that has kept Maia from settling into the comfortable role as an established veteran, comfortable in the skill sets he brings to the cage. That's why he sought out Wanderlei Silva to improve his striking game and coach Dave Esposito to perfect his wrestling game, making it impossible for opponents to avoid going to the mat with him.

"His takedowns and his ability to take the back so quickly really threw me off," Brown said. "We knew his jiu-jitsu was as good as anyone's and I was prepared for that. But his wrestling was much better than I thought it would be.

"His takedowns and transitions took me by surprise. And once he got ahold of me, it felt like I wasn't going anywhere. I'd never trained with anyone at the gym who was able to hold a position so well for so long. He's at the highest level. And you know that if you make one mistake, that's going to be it."

These are the little things that keep Maia coming to the gym every morning, personally teaching students at least once a week in the traditional gi of his art and perfecting his own craft every day with burgeoning professionals. He's a scientist studying pain, his own Academy in Sao Paulo a laboratory covered in blue mats. 

"I just love martial arts. I love the discoveries you make in training. I love to be ahead of the other fighters, using techniques they aren't ready to defend," Maia said in a voice that leaves no doubt that he means it. "I fight to pay for my passion. I love to train more than I love to fight."

It's this spirit of adventure, this drive to discover new ways to push both his opponents and himself that will propel Maia into the cage with Masvidal on Saturday, the latest step on a journey that has spanned a lifetime. Should he win, Maia is prepared for an opportunity to prove he's the best in the world. Just don't expect the same man from the fight before to enter the cage.

"This sport is still so new that we have this opportunity to create new strategies and techniques," he said. "This is what I do every day at the academy to stay ahead of my opponents. I am not stronger than them, I am not better at standup. My difference is that I train every day to bring things to the table my opponent will not be used to. When the chance comes, I will be ready."


Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.


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