Talk about tall tasks.
Demian Maia is a submission savant. The former Abu Dhabi champion has earned the Submission of the Night award in four of his seven UFC bouts. That is an unmatched record among active middleweights. Of those seven bouts, he has come up short just once—a one-punch knockout loss to Nate Marquardt. Those other six wins have brought him to the top of the division.
His reward for such a successful run is a fight with reigning middleweight champion and pound-for-pound demigod Anderson Silva.
I’m not sure that is much of a reward.
As successful as Maia has been inside the Octagon, his accomplishments pale in comparison to those of the champion. No fighter in history has started his career with more success than Silva. He holds the record for most consecutive wins at 10 and is tied with Matt Hughes and Tito Ortiz with five consecutive successful title defenses. During that time, he has not only risen to the top of the division but also to the top of the sport in pound-for-pound terms.
In other words, Anderson Silva is the baddest man on the planet—period. And this is what Maia gets to see on Saturday night.
The awful experience starts when the lights in the arena dim and the sound of “Ain’t No Sunshine” by DMX begins. As the champion’s death knell fills the air, he walks to the Octagon with a mindset that more closely resembles a man taking a leisurely stroll through the park on a warm spring afternoon than a guy moments away from engaging in fistic competition with a world class opponent who has trained for months with the sole purpose of defeating him in front of millions of viewers.
That in itself is intimidating because it shows the extreme confidence that Silva carries with him each time he fights. The champ wasn’t stressed to face Rich Franklin, James Irvin, Forrest Griffin, Dan Henderson or anyone else. He won’t be stressed to face Maia.
Once the action begins, Silva often takes the center of the Octagon in a crouched position, sort of like a coiled cobra ready to strike. And then he waits. He waits for an opponent to make a mistake in the form of a less than perfect attack. Silva, who is a true counterstriker, then explodes in classic Muay Thai fashion, throwing fists, elbows, knees and kicks in well timed, perfectly coordinated salvos.
Each movement is designed to trap his opponent in a cocoon of horrors. Each strike is thrown with malice aforethought. Each second Silva plots to bring the fight to an abrupt end. In nine of 10 UFC bouts, he has done just that. The one bout that lasted the distance was the result of an opponent who was too terrified to actually engage the champion.
Sounds like one heck of a reward for Maia’s Octagon successes, doesn’t it?
Let’s be crystal clear about something. Maia may be worthy of his shot at the belt, but if he stands in front of Silva and engages the champion with strikes for any length of time, the fight will end early.
Silva is the best striker in the UFC across all divisions, both in terms of pure technique and breadth of arsenal. He has the ability to knockout opponents with either fist, and he has no peers when it comes to the savagery of his knee strikes.
Standing with Silva, except for apex strikers, is like heading into war with a BB gun—silly idea. Maia, of course, is not an apex striker, so standing in front of the champ is a sure way to secure a free ride to the end of the contenders’ line.
Sure, anything can happen if a guy lands a perfect strike. But we’re talking about more often than not versus landing a lottery-winning strike.
Silva is a model of efficiency on the feet, and his accuracy is off the charts. But it is the quality of his strikes landed that is really indicative. Maia has never knocked out an opponent in the UFC, despite just landing a handful fewer total standing strikes per fight than Silva. I don’t know whether his strikes are thrown in the absence of malice, if he lacks the athleticism and technique to deliver maximum force or both. It doesn’t matter. The point holds that Maia has no business standing with Silva. If he does, it’s goodnight baby.
So, how does Maia go about pulling off the biggest upset in the UFC so far this year? Two words: ground game.
As mentioned, Maia is a submission savant. Both men are BJJ black belts, but Maia is in a completely different league than Silva when it comes to transition jiu jitsu.
We’ve already mentioned his ability to submit his opponents in the Octagon, and part of Maia’s success in the submission arena is his ability to divert an opponent’s focus away from defending submissions by landing a barrage of ground strikes. Best of all, once he gets an opponent to the ground, he keeps him there.
Of course, the question for Maia is how does he get the fight to the ground? For a dominant wrestler like Dan Henderson, taking down the champion was no problem at all. After all, Silva has excellent takedown defense, but it isn’t impenetrable by any means. The problem Maia must overcome is that like many other BJJ greats who are exceedingly comfortable fighting from their back, he has never developed top-level takedown skills.
Maia has had success taking his opponents down, but of his opponents, only Chael Sonnen, a highly decorated amateur wrestler, is in Silva’s league in terms of takedown defense. Silva’s opponents, including Dan Henderson, who is a world class wrestler, and Travis Lutter, who took him down twice, have only had sporadic success in getting the champ to the mat.
Maia’s key to overcoming Silva’s takedown defense is to time the champion. Lutter, who is a solid middleweight, but certainly not a world class wrestler, laid down the game plan for how do to that in his non-title bout with the champion a few years ago after scoring two takedowns during a strong early effort before finally succumbing to a triangle choke.
The first takedown occurred midway through the first round when Lutter caught Silva attacking with a flying knee. The second occurred early in the second round when Lutter caught a haphazard leg kick. Catching kicks and knees is the best way for a guy like Maia, who like Lutter doesn’t have dominant takedown skills, to get the action to the ground.
The best way to force Silva to throw an errant strike is to remain on the outside and force him to engage. I know many fans don’t want to read that because it could result in very boring stretches. But there are no rules that state that a challenger must recklessly attack the champion. That notion is absurd. Each man must do whatever it is that he believes gives him the best chance to win. Attacking Silva on the feet is athletic suicide. Forcing him to come out of his shell and attack is the only way that Maia has a chance to win.
Maia should circle with the champion and throw feints while tactically coming forward to slowly close the distance. Just when Silva thinks that Maia is within punching range, the challenger should retreat. The fans will react badly with jeers. Silva will stand frustrated with his hands on his hips. Maia should ignore all that. Again, there is no rule that the challenger must engage. The obligation to engage is equal on both fighters.
When Silva gets frustrated because his opponent isn’t engaging, he tends to either try something flashy and risky or throw a halfhearted leg kick with the hope of encouraging a counter attack. That is when Maia can take him down.
Another option is to try a high-risk maneuver, such as a flying ankle lock (Ryo Chonan succeeded in submitting Silva with that move back in 2004) or shooting in and quickly pulling guard. The problem with those options is that Maia won’t want to be on the receiving end of Silva’s ground strikes for very long. The guy carries bricks in his fists in all situations—standing, on the ground, sitting in the stands or eating a hotdog. Maia doesn’t want to be on the bottom, unless that is the only way to get the fight to the ground, which, as mentioned previously, is the only way I see him winning.
On the ground, Maia needs to work quickly and efficiently for a submission. He cannot, for any reason, rest inside the champion’s guard. If he does that, Silva, who possesses extremely long legs, will completely stalemate Maia’s submission attacks by locking in a body triangle from the bottom. There is absolutely nothing that Maia or anyone else can do from that position, other than work ground-and-pound or try and break the hold. There are no submissions that are plausible from that position. Even an arm triangle is difficult because it typically requires the most expert of attackers to be in side control or at least half guard to apply the proper pressure.
Silva will almost certainly look to apply a body triangle the instant he finds himself defending from his guard against Maia. Thus, the challenger should try to pass during the transition or quickly posture up to try and prevent Silva from securing the hold. The latter is the safer route from a ground control perspective and opens the door for some distracting ground and pound. The former is the more effective way to secure a dominant position and subsequently a submission hold.
At the end of the day, I really think this is Silva’s fight to lose. Maia is one of the greatest submission artists in the sport, pound for pound, but he has never before faced someone of Silva’s overall fighting prowess, and that will be a monstrous hurdle for the challenger to overcome.
• 34 years old
• 6’2, 185 lbs
• 25-4 overall (10-0 UFC)
• 10 consecutive UFC wins is most in history
• 9 UFC wins inside the distance (7 by KO/TKO and 2 by submission)
• 5 of those 9 wins were in the first round
• Hasn’t lost since January 20, 2006 (DQ loss to Yushin Okami outside of UFC)
• 6-0 in championship fights, including 5 successful consecutive defenses
• 6 championship wins ties for 3rd all-time
• 5 successful consecutive defenses ties for 1st all time
• Current layoff of 245 days (KO1 over Forrest Griffin on August 8, 2009) is the longest of his UFC career
• Submission of the Night (SUB2 over Dan Henderson by rear naked choke on March 1, 2008)
• Knockout of the Night twice (TKO2 over Rich Franklin at UFC 77 and KO1 over Forrest Griffin at UFC 102)
• Fight of the Night twice (SUB2 over Dan Henderson on March 1, 2008 and KO1 over Forrest Griffin on August 8, 2009)
• 32 yrs old
• 6’0, 185 lbs
• 12-1 overall (6-1 UFC)
• 5 of 6 UFC wins by submission
• 3 of those 6 submission wins were in the first round
• First career loss came August 29, 2009 via first-round knockout to Nate Marquardt
• Rebounded from the loss with a hard-fought unanimous decision win over Dan Miller on February 6, 2010
• Current layoff is 63 days (UD3 over Dan Miller on February 6, 2010)
• Longest layoff of UFC career is 189 days (SUB1 over Chael Sonnen on February 21, 2009, until KO1 by Nate Marquardt on August 29, 2009)
• Submission of the Night 4 times (SUB 1 over Ryan Jensen by rear naked choke on October 20, 2007; SUB2 over Ed Herman by triangle choke April 19, 2007; SUB3 over Jason MacDonald by rear naked choke August 9, 2008; and SUB1 over Chael Sonnen by triangle choke on February 21, 2009)
• First title fight