“The cage game is something that you really have to think about a lot. It’s basically a new sport and that’s something that I realised around four or five years ago; jiu jitsu guys and even very good wrestlers don’t always have a successful plan when dealing with the grappling up against a cage.”
Demian Maia is, without doubt, jiu jitsu’s shining light within the Octagon. With a career spanning 35 fights – including 26 wins and 13 submissions – he’s showing no signs of slowing down despite entering his 40s. Coming off the back of three back-to-back defeats to the welterweight division’s toughest competition – Tyron Woodley, Colby Covington and Kamaru Usman – Maia secured a trademark RNC victory over Lyman Good in the first round in his native Brazil in February.
Maia’s performances not only champion the gentle art, they show that his unique approach to grappling will continue to deal-up submission victories. His style of jiu jitsu suits MMA perfectly, which is more a matter of cultivation over coincidence.
“Well I believe jiu jitsu training really gives you the ability to be creative and adaptive when you fight,’ Maia explains. “I have been in this game for so many years, I learned the differences between competing in sport BJJ and when using it in MMA.
“I feel like I’ve developed a good way to use my jiu jitsu in MMA, specifically using the grappling transitions with punches. This is obviously a big difference from sport jiu jitsu and there’s a lot of small details there that you have to consider when fighting mma.
“The cage game is something that you really have to think about a lot. It’s basically a new sport and that’s something that I realised around four or five years ago; jiu jitsu guys and even very good wrestlers don’t always have a successful plan when dealing with the grappling up against a cage. There’s the vertical plane and horizontal plane – normally when we fight in jiu jitsu we are just dealing with the horizontal plane. I realised that changing to the vertical plane requires some changes and a few tweaks in the way you move. I now have a lot of techniques and tricks that I have developed to use against the cage, and I think that’s an area of the game where I’m ahead of lots of people. It’s something I’ll teach in the future, but right now I don’t want to show!”
Three losses in a row never looks good on an athlete’s CV, but Maia’s defeats must be taken with a pinch of salt given the level of competition. The current welterweight champion, Kamaru Usman, dealt Maia his last defeat, but the Brazilian could perhaps feel hard done by given the circumstances surrounding the first round. Maia has essentially reaches Usman’s back from standing, before the referee opted to separate the fighters due to lack of action.
“You know what, that was one of my main positions that we actually trained to get to; with the hook going all the way across to the opposite side,” says Maia on the Usman fight separation. “People talk a lot about having to get the fight to the ground in order to use your jiu jitsu, but I don’t need to go to the ground – I can get to the positions I want from standing up. You start to force from there and then slowly they have to release their overhook. It takes a while and I think Usman’s glove got stuck a little bit because it was early in the fight and we weren’t that slippery. I think it was a matter of time from there though. Actually, after the fight I tapped him on the shoulder to say good fight and he was like, ‘ah! watch my shoulder’ because he’d hurt it a bit using a lot of strength to counter that position. I think because my concentration for that fight was so high, I didn’t feel frustrated at the time. I only had two weeks of training and I knew any mistake would be a knockout.”
In the wake of the Usman fight, and with his current status as the champion, you could have forgiven Maia if he’d taken the decision to hang up his gloves. However, testament to his warrior mentality, he chose the harder path: dusted himself down and came back with vengeance.
“It was the first time having to come back from three defeats in a row, but look at the guys who I lost to,” says Maia. “They’re three champion fighters and I know I’m still in the game. You know, you always think that you have to win a fight, but you can’t think about it too much because that starts to become negative; thinking about the bad things that happen as a result to your legacy if you lose. My experience told me it was just another fight, but maybe it wouldn’t have handled it so well if it was five or six years ago. The fight day felt like a blur, like I was in a meditation.”
Keep an eye out for part two of our exclusive interview with Demian Maia shortly.