When you’ve won six fights in a row in the UFC lightweight division, it’s difficult not to be earmarked as the next title contender.
Gray Maynard knows there are no guarantees, though. The former Michigan State wrestling champion faces Nate Diaz this Monday at UFC Fight Night 20 in Fairfax, Va., in a rematch of their early 2007 bout on “The Ultimate Fighter 5.” And the pragmatic lightweight said a win won’t necessarily translate into a title shot against B.J. Penn.
“I don’t really know what (the promotion’s) talking about, but I got to get past Nate,” Maynard told the Sherdog Radio Network’s “Savage Dog” show on Monday. “There’s a lot of guys who are probably like, ‘Yeah, I’m close to a title shot,’ so I’m just one of those guys I guess.”
The Xtreme Couture product said he’s progressed much further than the green, one-dimensional plodder Diaz submitted in the second round on the Spike TV reality series. After his June 2007 “Ultimate Fighter” finale bout against castmate Rob Emerson was ruled a no contest due to a rare double knockout, the steadily climbing Maynard has fired off victories against Jim Miller, Roger Huerta and current contender Frankie Edgar. The wrestling purebred has developed his striking and ground skills with each outing.
“We both have changed a lot,” said Maynard of Diaz. “I was pretty green. Obviously he’s a tricky guy, so I’ve got to be careful of the chokes and everything else. He’s got good jits. He’s long. He’s a lefty, but it seems like every fighter I go up against is a lefty. What is up with all these leftys?”
The 30-year-old fighter said he isn’t complaining, however. His camps over the last two years have centered around preparing to fight southpaws. For this latest camp, Maynard enlisted jiu-jitsu strength Evan Dunham, also on Monday card’s against Efrain Escudero; wrestler L.C. Davis and the usual Xtreme Couture crew that includes Mike Pyle, Jay Hieron and Tyson Griffin (prior to his December injury.)
Still, at the end of Maynard’s road lies Penn, who devastated challenger Diego Sanchez over five rounds at UFC 107 last December in Memphis, Tenn., and shows little sign of being stopped anytime soon.
“B.J. went up against Diego and he looked good,” said Maynard. “I think Diego went up against a couple of guys, Joe ‘Daddy’ (Stevenson) and Clay (Guida) -- I think that was one of Joe’s worst (fights). He didn’t look too good. Joe and Clay had a tough time with a lefty (in Diego), whereas Penn, he knew what to do and it was a stun to (Diego). He was like, ‘Wow, this guy’s hitting me clean.’
“I think that choosing Diego to go up against Penn was more about what’s going to get the most in sales, which you can’t blame them for that,” Maynard continued. “This is about the money. I think there was a couple of guys that could have done maybe a little bit more.”
When asked who some of those challengers could have been, Maynard’s list includes the usual suspects: Edgar, himself, and Kenny Florian, who unsuccessfully battled Penn to a fourth-round submission loss at UFC 101 last August.
A skill Maynard hasn’t had to learn over the last few years is patience. The NCAA Div. I All-American has that in abundance, which is why he hasn’t questioned the UFC’s matchmaking decisions in terms of his own assignments.
“I don’t know if I got passed over (instead of Sanchez),” said Maynard. “It’s a business choice, a smart business choice because it sold tickets. That’s the name of the game. I know that. I’m not dumb. You do what you got to do. I don’t get my feelings hurt about that stuff.”
If Diaz becomes the wrestler’s seventh straight following Monday, Maynard could very well secure a date with an uber-talented Hawaiian who leads the division in virtually all facets of the game. Still, Maynard would be yet another longshot in a winding road of past challengers.
“That’s why it would be such a fun fight,” said Maynard. “You’ve got nothing to lose. You can just let it all hang out. He’s the guy that everybody’s like ‘He’s unbeatable’ and he’s this and he talks like he’s got everything together and it was just because he wasn’t trying (before). Well, then let’s give some guys a shot then and let’s see what happens.”
Note: This article was updated to correct Maynard as a Div. I All-American and not a Div. I champion and also to correct the round in which Penn submitted Florian.
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