Demian Maia on Saturday was framed as a throwback and an outlier in today’s MMA scene during the UFC on Fox 21 telecast, moments before he took Carlos Condit to the mat with ease and submitted him in less than two minutes. Maia was described this way because of the perception that he, like many fighters in the earlier days of the sport, is a specialist heavily reliant on one specific discipline. While Maia is indeed a throwback and an outlier, it’s for slightly different reasons.
Maia’s jiu-jitsu is his greatest strength, but he’s far from a one-note specialist like fighters from the past. Maia has improved his striking markedly over the years, standing for most of many of his fights and demonstrating solid kickboxing. He’s not a world beater on the feet, but you don’t stand 25 minutes with Anderson Silva if you can’t defend yourself there. He’s also a very good wrestler, putting solid wrestlers on their backs and setting up his submissions.
More importantly, today’s MMA landscape is filled with fighters who rely heavily on a specific discipline. Chuck Liddell has become the template for so many of today’s fighters, utilizing a wrestling background in order to strike without being taken down. Fighters like Georges St. Pierre and Fedor Emelianenko, who switched up their game plans wildly from fight to fight depending on their opponent, have given way to more fighters who tend to do the same things in most fights. In this landscape, Maia is the throwback -- and not because he relies strongly on a particular discipline. Rather, he’s a throwback because the discipline he relies on is jiu-jitsu.
Sadly, jiu-jitsu is becoming something of a lost art in today’s MMA. Standup fighting has come to dominate the sport, and the best grapplers tend to rely more on control than submissions. The highest level of the sport is instructive. Since 2015, Ultimate Fighting Championship title fights have ended 16 times via knockout or technical knockout, 10 times via decision and just six times via submission. Even that’s a little deceptive, as submissions are often set up by strikes, but TKOs are less often set up by submission attempts. Included in those submissions are fights like Amanda Nunes-Miesha Tate and Fabricio Werdum-Cain Velasquez -- standup fights where success in striking led to the submissions.
Werdum himself is an additional example of the trend. The former jiu-jitsu world champion relied on his ground game for most of the early days of his career. Then, under the tutelage of Rafael Cordeiro, Werdum transformed himself into a dangerous striker. In recent years, Werdum has lived and died by the striking sword, turning to his jiu-jitsu primarily when the issue is forced by an opponent. Even crème de la crème submission artists like Werdum and Ronaldo Souza seem content to strike away any given fight.
Let’s be clear. The reason to root for more jiu-jitsu in MMA is not nostalgia for Royce Gracie or a desire to affirm the supremacy of the art in mixed competition. Rather, it’s that one of the things that makes MMA most exciting is the rock/paper/scissors balance of disciplines at its core. The reason fans have delighted in making fun of MMA math for so many years is because it so misunderstands the nature of the sport. What separates fighter A from fighter B may be entirely different from what separates fighter B and fighter C. The more diversified set of skills possessed by fighters across the sport, the more excitement and unpredictability.
It is in that environment that we should root for more fighters like Maia. He presents an entirely different challenge for welterweight champion Tyron Woodley than the other fighters in the division. In a sea of boxer-wrestlers, he is distinct. That’s true of many different martial artists, from judo players like Ronda Rousey and Karo Parisyan to karate stylists like Lyoto Machida and Stephen Thompson. Unique styles have intrigued fans dating back to the origins of the sport.
What distinguishes jiu-jitsu is that it has proven to be extremely successful for a wide variety of fighters throughout MMA history. It’s not a fad or novelty. Moreover, its practitioners have a widespread pride in the discipline that’s probably only matched by the pride of amateur wrestlers. There’s no reason they can’t take back the sport, particularly with other fighters tending to concentrate on other skills. The NFL has a way of rotating between different philosophies, and it’s likely that a fully mature sport of MMA will have similar ebbs and flows over time. A shift towards jiu-jitsu may not come on a large scale in the near future. Until it does, we should appreciate fighters like Maia. The sport’s more fun with him in it.