It would be unfair to call it peer pressure, but after being asked time and time again about moving from the UFC’s middleweight division to the 170-pound welterweight class, Demian Maia decided to think a little deeper on the topic. And after a January loss to Chris Weidman, those thoughts turned into action.
“For a long time people have been asking me if I would go down to welterweight, and I never really thought it was needed, but it kept me wondering how it would be,” said the 34-year old Maia. “I knew I could make the cut though, and after my last fight I gave it more serious thought and discussed it with my team. I think it's refreshing to find new motivation and have a new beginning, per se, in my career now, and most top contenders at middleweight were naturally much heavier than I am. I used to walk around at about 203 pounds, but making an effort to eat more than I'm used to. Some top guys at middleweight walk around at 220 pounds or even a little more and cut to 185. I think at welterweight I'm at least fighting people in the same range and frame I have, and I like the idea of a new start.”
Some would say he didn’t need one. 9-4 in the UFC at middleweight, with his only losses coming against the division elite (Anderson Silva, Mark Munoz, Nate Marquardt, and Weidman), Maia was only stopped once, when he got caught seconds into his 2009 fight against Marquardt, and he went the five round distance with Silva, the pound for pound king. So he was able to hang with the big boys, but he does admit that when it came to strength, he was at a disadvantage.
“I think oddly enough, height and reach wise it doesn't make much of a difference,” said the six foot tall Maia on the switch of weight classes. “I never felt I was short for a middleweight, but I don't feel I'm tall for a welterweight either. I mean, there are shorter welterweights, but my opponent at UFC 148 (Dong Hyun Kim) is taller than I am. So it goes to show that things are kind of similar in that field, but I think I'll be on more equal terms at least strength wise now.”
Adding more weapons to Maia’s arsenal isn’t going to be a positive thing for those who face him in the future, beginning with Dong Hyun Kim this Saturday night in Las Vegas, but while people always talk of Maia’s world-class ground game and his improving striking, what they really should be worried about is his determination and heart, both of which were on display in the Weidman fight, as he made it through three rounds with a younger, bigger, and stronger opponent even when it was clear that his gas tank had hit empty.
“Well, fighting is our profession and also our life,” said Maia. “This is a very tough sport, and opportunities aren't that many. Fighting in the UFC is where every fighter wants to be, and certainly I have to give my best effort, not only for the UFC itself, but the fans and mostly to myself. I wish obviously that I could have done a better performance, as I know the fight wasn't exciting and I shouldn't have got tired like I did in that fight. But still, even being tired, the least I could do was push through and try until the very last minute. In the end, that fight was important to have me making some decisions like changing weight classes.”
In camp for the Kim fight, Maia is feeling the difference physically, making him mentally recall his first few fights in the UFC, where he submitted Ryan Jensen, Ed Herman, Jason MacDonald, Nate Quarry, and Chael Sonnen in succession.
“It's funny because early in my career as a middleweight in the UFC I used to walk around at 188 pounds or something like that, and fight at 185. Now I was back to walking around at 188 to cut to 170, and it made me remember that the extra weight didn't necessarily mean more power or strength to me. I'm feeling faster, and not feeling any issues with my strength, so I believe although it's always a little effort to cut weight, it was the right choice.”
An emphatic win over Kim would cement that choice as the correct one, but the underrated standout from Busan, South Korea is no welcome to the division present for Maia. Not by a long shot.
“As any good fighter, he presents a number of challenges and difficulties,” said Maia of Kim, who has only one loss (to Carlos Condit) in 18 pro fights. “I think Kim is a very solid competitor, and for someone to be at the level he was at as a Judo player in the past, it certainly shows how much commitment and discipline he has. I think he is well rounded, aggressive and has a good base. It's an important fight for both of us and it's a fight that will move up whoever wins.”
Of course, moving up in the welterweight division is a blessing and a curse – a blessing because every fighter wants to get to the top in the sport, and a curse because any 170-pounder will have to walk through fire in the form of Condit, Rory MacDonald, Martin Kampmann, Johny Hendricks, Jake Ellenberger, Josh Koscheck, and so on and so on to get to a title shot against Georges St-Pierre. Maia, who hasn’t ducked any challenges during his nearly five years in the UFC, and he’s not about to start now.
“I think in the UFC there are no easy divisions right now, with plenty of top fighters in all weight classes,” he said. “170 pounds is a very tough division, with very good wrestlers and some solid strikers as well. GSP is a great champion and has been dominating the division for a long time; that alone shows how good he is. I admire him not only for the fighter he is, but the great ambassador he is for the sport.”
The gentlemanly Maia is doing a pretty good job representing the sport in a positive manner as well, and while he’s had his share of highlights over the course of his time in the Octagon, the way he sees it, this journey has just begun.
“Time flies,” he said when asked about his UFC career. “Five years already. I hope to stay for some more years to come, and it's tough to pick one highlight. I think fighting for the middleweight belt (against Silva) was pretty special in itself, as it's quite an experience, and I think my fight against Chael Sonnen was also very special. In the end, it's a tough ride and every time we go to the UFC to fight there's a lot on the line, so at that very moment it's always extremely special. I had great times and an intense experience during these five years, and I'm continuing to try my best to improve as a fighter. But I think my biggest duty is to give my best effort. I'm working very hard with my team for this fight, as I know what it means and I'm very happy in being part of UFC 148. I'm gonna give my best effort and I really hope it's going to be a fight that's going to please the fans, and the start of a new run, step by step.”