1. Demian Maia
Demian Maia celebrated his 38th birthday while holding his position as a world-ranked Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight. The Brazilian fought off younger prospects on three separate occasions during a true-to-form 2015 run that made him Sherdog.com’s “Comeback Fighter of the Year.” Maia polished his record at 170 pounds to 7-2 and improved to 16-6 overall inside the Octagon. He now finds himself on a four-fight winning streak, his latest victories serving as building blocks to a potential shot at welterweight gold.
First, Maia headlined a UFC Fight Night event his home country on March 21 and bested Blackzilians rep Ryan LaFlare across 25 minutes. Maia only lost one round on each judge’s scorecard. He returned to Brazil for UFC 190 on Aug. 1, as he earned his first submission in three years with a rear-naked choke on Neil Magny. It netted him a $50,000 “Performance of the Night” bonus -- the sixth post-fight bonus of his UFC career. Finally on Dec. 12, Maia took a unanimous decision from Gunnar Nelson at UFC 194 and in the process garnered the ultra-rare 10-8 grappling round on two scorecards. The third judge rendered a 10-7 round in Maia’s favor -- an anomaly, yes, but justifiable in this case.
Maia spent 57 minutes and 52 seconds in the cage, crafting an undefeated 2015 campaign against LaFlare, Magny and Nelson. He showed no signs of slowing down, as he logged his most fight time since 2010, the year that included his infamously frustrating 25-minute encounter with then-middleweight champion Anderson Silva in the United Arab Emirates. His three wins came against opponents who were on average a decade younger than him.
A two-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion, Maia shut down an undefeated prospect in LaFlare and then submitted Magny, the UFC’s most active fighter. Magny finished the year ranked in the top 10 at 170 pounds and went on to defeat “The Ultimate Fighter 17” winner Kelvin Gastelum on short notice in November. Maia snapped an 11-fight winning streak for LaFlare and a seven-fight winning streak for Magny. LaFlare, Magny and Nelson went a perfect 6-0 in their other appearances this year.
Maia reversed the narrative set in motion by Father Time. The 2007 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist’s celebrated jiu-jitsu game was on full display over the past 12 months, as he continued to build on an often-overlooked resume. Outside of his June 2011 defeat to Mark Munoz, Maia has lost only to fighters who have either fought for or won UFC championships during their careers. His latest run of success represents his strongest stretch since he entered the UFC and became the only fighter in history to tap out five consecutive opponents.
Fighting for a UFC title remains a goal, and Maia used his post-UFC 194 speech to address the promotion’s current ranking system.
“People are influenced by marketing and whatnot,” he said. “I think the ranking system should be defined with a mathematic formula or something and not just someone’s opinion over who’s the better fighter. I beat Magny [and earned] a ‘Performance of the Night’ [bonus], by the way. After that, he fought twice and defeated Erick Silva and Kelvin Gastelum, but Gastelum, who lost to him, jumped two spots. I don’t know what’s up with that. I’m ready for the title. I’m a much improved fighter.”
At a time when fighters are expected to capitalize on their microphone time to nail down the matchups they want, Maia went a step further and spoke to a larger issue in the sport. Fighters exist in a card-subject-to-change culture with no guarantees and no defined criteria on what determines title contention. Maia aptly expressed fighter frustrations during the year’s best and most-watched pay-per-view event. The UFC has signaled to fighters that they are at the mercy of promotional whims, and Maia asked a critical question: How does one hit a moving target without knowing where it is situated? In the process, he let it be known that he is not in MMA just to tread water. Maia’s in-cage accomplishments and his willingness to point out important issues impacting his sport made for quite the comeback story.
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