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Aged wisdom and youthful confidence have always been at odds with each other. It’s a reasonably understood, inversely proportional relationship; when the body is more adaptable and broadly capable, thoughtfulness is less necessary to success than it is when the body starts to deteriorate. You see this dynamic play out -- in sports and in life -- with such variability that it’s not certain which side of the spectrum is winning. Sure, experience is something you don’t know you never had until you finally get it, but at the same time, experience is something you’ll never get if you don’t tell your mind to shut up and get out of the body’s way. No amount of physical ability can substitute intelligence, and yet you can’t compile any number of sage aphorisms to land a standing backflip.
In mixed martial arts, this tension manifests in interesting ways. It’s easy to point to Demian Maia’s gentlemanly domination of Carlos Condit at UFC on Fox 21 as a signal that the old-timers still got it, and you wouldn’t be wrong to do so. It’s bigger than that, though. The entirety of Maia’s career has shown that he has almost always been wise beyond his years.
The Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace was a few weeks shy of 30 when he made his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut in 2007. By today’s standards, he was a latecomer to the party, though he certainly wasn’t the first or the oldest to make the jump. As one of the most decorated jiu-jitsu players ever to transition into MMA, it was no surprise that Maia won his first five fights by submission. He was playing to his strengths, as any wise man would.
Yet even the wisest of us is still human, which is to say that no one is patient or thoughtful enough to be immune to lapses in judgment. Not even Maia, who, in an attempt to shore up his striking deficiencies (smart) began to forget what brought him to the show in the first place (not so smart). Case in point: His attempt to mix it up on the feet with Nate Marquardt led to his jumping chin-first into a counter right cross that flatlined him in 21 seconds.
To be sure, this is not to say that Maia shouldn’t have improved his striking. Of course he should have, and he should continue to do so. His error was not that he listened to the conventional wisdom of becoming a better martial artist; his error was that he didn’t tailor those improvements around the Royal Flush of a grappling game he already had in his sleeve. Instead, he tried to add a patient, pot-shot-at-range kickboxing game that was never going to work at the highest levels of the sport. Had he then been the fighter he is now, singularly focused on dragging the fight to the ground by any means necessary, perhaps his middleweight title shot against Anderson Silva would not have gone down as one of the worst championship fights in UFC history.
The rationale of that chapter in Maia’s career is totally understandable: If he wasn’t able to get an opponent to the ground, he needed a fallback weapon. Yet part of the wisdom that comes with experience is knowing when and how to take risks. That is to say, it’s smarter for him to risk eating counters in order to clinch up than it is to stand and trade with better -- and usually younger -- athletes in hopes that they will eventually make a mistake. At some point, you’re simply too old to wait around for things to happen, and it’s on you to proactively make them happen.
Maia was never coordinative or explosive enough an athlete to develop a legitimate striking game in his 30s. He did, however, have the physical strength and grappling acumen to become a much better wrestler. Shortly after his middleweight title shot debacle, this is exactly what he did. Especially after dropping down to welterweight, this allowed him to dictate the terms of the fight more efficiently than a kickboxing game ever could, and it played to his existing strengths. Maia made a strategic error in those early UFC days, but he learned from them quickly and paid no mind to the showers of boos he received while he was on the road to becoming what he is now.
His masterclass performance against Condit was not an example of age getting the best of youth. Condit made his professional debut a year after Maia and has 10 more fights on his resume, making it hard to consider him a young buck; if anything, “age before beauty” is more applicable anyway. No, it was a culmination of a long road of “boring” fights and incremental improvements to his game. Amid the flurry of stats that have surfaced post-fight, the most jaw-dropping of them all is that Maia has only been hit with 13 significant strikes in the 39 minutes of his last four fights, all of which were against top 10-caliber opponents. In those fights, Maia threw seven strikes from distance and attempted 21 takedowns. Compared to his time at middleweight, he is striking from distance less, attempting and completing takedowns more and getting hit a whole lot less because of it.
Of course, some of this disparity is a function of the size difference between welterweight and middleweight. Still yet, I’m not so quick to attribute the division change with too much of Maia’s success story. Maia is a man who knows his limits and has gone about the painstaking task of making subtle adjustments to his craft that many a casual fan will either deride or not notice. The results speak for themselves: He may not be the flashiest fighter, but even though everyone knows exactly what he’s going to do, nobody seems to be able to stop him from doing it. At this point, Maia is an inevitability in the cage, a jiu-jitsu Terminator who ceaselessly tries to take the fight to the mat, whereupon he makes grappling with black belts look like choreographed instructional videos. You can love it or leave it, but you can’t deny it.
The average UFC champion is 31 years and seven months old -- right about the time when the physical gifts of youth are passing the baton to the veteran craftiness of aged experience. Maia turns 39 in November. Amidst the ceaseless churn of MMA’s athletic and technical evolution, he’s a legitimate throwback to the days when nobody knew what “a jiu-jitsu” was. While we tend to think the game is fundamentally changing with the advent of MMA as a single martial arts pursuit, Maia is quietly and confidently reminding us that the heart of the game hasn’t changed all that much.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.