Demian Maia: The Invisible Man

(Maia finishes Jason MacDonald. Courtesy of Zuffa, LLC)

Ben Fowlkes’ profile of Demian Maia originally appeared in the Feb. 2009 issue of FIGHT! Magazine. Maia will face Dan Miller at UFC 109 on Feb. 6.

It’s the day before UFC 91 in Las Vegas, and you can’t set foot in the MGM Grand without feeling the energy of an approaching fight night. It reaches out and touches you, like static electricity. A little zap on the surface of your skin. Even the regular tourists who are here by accident feel it. They don’t know who these cauliflower-eared men in the lobby are, all decked out in T-shirts covered with sponsor logos, fist up and posing for pictures with giddy young twenty-somethings. They know only that these men have got to be famous, and as tourists they must obey the laws of fame. They must stand and gawk, even if they aren’t sure who they’re gawking at.

This is where Demian Maia comes in. Or rather, this is where he goes by, almost completely unnoticed. The crowd that has gathered around Junie Browning – a familiar face from reality television, they’d recognize that grenade tattoo anywhere – doesn’t see the Brazilian as he strolls by. The undefeated Jiu-Jitsu phenom who just might be the heir to the UFC’s middleweight throne is not even a blip on their radar. Not yet, anyway. By the end of Saturday night, it could well be a different story.

In many ways, the 31-year-old Maia — the decorated grappler who hardly needs to throw a punch to win a fight — seems like a fighter from a different era. The guy has so many Jiu-Jitsu titles – Abu Dhabi champion, World Cup champion, Pan American champion, etc – that listing them all seems tedious since it only confirms what anyone who has seen one of his few fights in the UFC already knows: the guy is a black hole on the ground who swallows up anyone unlucky enough to get close.

His opponents all know what he wants to do, where he wants the fight to go. In theory at least, game-planning for him should be simple. It begins and ends with one rule, and that rule is to stay on your feet at all costs. Turn the fight into a kickboxing match. So far, no one has been able to do it. Nate Quarry is the next man to try. According to conventional wisdom, he has a decent shot. He has never been submitted in his pro career. This fact seems mildly impressive, though not quite daunting, to Maia,

“I’ve seen a few of his fights on tape. He’s good,” Maia admitted a week before the fight, his voice almost opiate-calm after a hard training session with Wanderlei Silva. “He never quits. He has good stand-up and a strong takedown defense.”

Strong enough to stay on his feet? To force Maia into the kind of stand-up striking battle he’s managed to avoid for the bulk of his 3-year MMA career?

“We’ll see,” he says and chuckles. “Other people have tried that already.”

The fact that no one has succeeded isn’t something he feels the need to point out, just like he doesn’t need to tell you what his strategy is for this next fight. It’s obvious to anyone who’s glanced at his resume. But knowing what’s coming and being able to prevent it are two different things.

Maia’s love affair with fighting began early. The son of a musician who played in popular São Paulo nightclubs, his first inclinations were toward combat. He was 4 years old when he first began studying Judo. After that came Kung Fu and Karate, both of which aided him well growing up in Brazil, where fighting was practically a part of the school curriculum.

“When I was a kid, maybe 12 years old, I discovered that I really liked to fight,” he says. “I wasn’t a mean kid, but when a fight started I liked it. I wanted to hurt the other guy. Martial arts helped me learn some self-control. It helped with my anger and made me focused.”

Unlike many Brazilian youths, Maia was late in discovering Jiu-Jitsu. But at age 19, while working toward a journalism degree in college, he discovered his passion for the sport in a local academy. Almost immediately he was training at every available moment, sometimes three times per day. It was this drive and dedication, he says, that accelerated his development.

“I don’t think I had more talent than the other guys. Maybe slightly more than average. But I think it was my mind that helped me become better. I saw that I was willing to do more than some other guys were. That’s what made the difference.”

Maia’s obsessive training led to a black belt in less than five years, an uncommonly rapid advance through the ranks. Though he’d go on to dazzle the Jiu-Jitsu world with victories in the absolute division of the World Cup in 2002 and 2003, and later an Abu Dhabi championship in 2007, it didn’t prepare him for the unique challenge of becoming a professional MMA fighter.

“The hardest thing is that you must always be prepared for the next fight. Always,” he says. “You can’t ever afford not to be. In Jiu-Jitsu, if you lose a tournament you move on to the next one. It’s no big deal. In MMA, every fight is your most important fight. I think a lot of guys go to MMA from Jiu-Jitsu just for the money. I think this is why many of them are not successful. But this is too hard a life to do only for money. You have to love it.”

And Maia does. Even though it takes him away from his family, from his wife, to far-off places like Finland, Canada, and the United States. The travel is part of the allure. It’s the adventurous life he’s always wanted — going to new places, meeting new people, and getting paid to kick the asses of said people. It has worked out well so far.

(Maia cinches up Ryan Jensen. Courtesy of Zuffa, LLC)

One thing Jiu-Jitsu competition has taught him is how to deal with pressure. The nerves before a fight are almost commonplace now, so when they accompany his last-minute locker room preparations for the bout against Quarry, they feel nothing if not normal. The crowd response is somewhat tepid during his walk to the Octagon. Quarry follows a few moments later to a louder ovation, looking every bit the chiseled athlete Maia’s been preparing for. What he doesn’t know is that the walkouts and introductions will take longer than the fight itself.

Maia wastes no time putting his game plan into action, shooting for a double-leg takedown and then pulling a half-guard, which he uses to trip Quarry once the American tries to pull away. Just that quickly they are already in his world. Quarry’s attempt at staying on his feet has lasted just 30 seconds. A few more ticks of the clock and Maia is in full mount. Then he takes Quarry’s back. The rear naked choke follows like some unavoidable natural progression, the way one moment leads to the next.

It almost seems like a letdown. So much training, travel, and preparation, all for less than 3 minutes of action.

After the fight he mentions Michael Bisping as a potential future opponent, an idea the UFC brass seem amenable to. In the postfight press conference Dana White admits to being very impressed with Maia’s win, saying he and matchmaker Joe Silva talked about how the Brazilian might factor into the “moves” they have planned for the middleweight division.

Does that mean Maia could end up as a coach (and a reality television star in his own right) opposite Bisping on the next Ultimate Fighter, a reporter asks.

“Could be,” White says.

The night is not without one minor letdown, however. For the first time in four UFC fights, Maia does not take home the Submission of the Night award. He shrugs it off. He got a little something extra for his trouble anyway, he hints later. Apparently, there are certain benefits to running through a UFC veteran as if your car was double parked outside the arena.

But beyond the extra cash for his wallet, Maia has earned himself a brief rest and a trip home. As much as he likes to travel, it’s always sweet to return to his wife a winner.

“I love this. Truly, I do,” he says. “It’s hard, the training is intense, and sometimes it’s very difficult, mentally and physically. But it’s a dream job for me.”

At the rate he’s going, it’s hard to imagine the dream coming to an end anytime soon.

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