Demian Maia resides on an upper floor of the skyscraper known as the UFC. When you've won three fights in a row since joining the fight promotion's welterweight division, each victory more imposing than the last, you ascend to a scenic perch full of grand possibilities. However, if you're predominately a grappler, your place at the top of the game is on a narrow, windswept ledge. It's dangerous up there.
When Maia fights Jake Shields on Wednesday night (7 p.m., Fox Sports 1), he'll be taking on a man who lives several stories below him on a ledge significantly more slippery than his. While Demian is fifth among 170-pounders in the UFC's media-voted rankings (in SI.com's, too) and has a couple of finishes since dropping from middleweight a little over a year ago, Shields (28-6-1, 1 NC), a fellow Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, is coming off a split-decision win in the wake of a six-month suspension for testing positive for a prohibited substance. So while Jake owns a three-fight unbeaten streak, too, there's reason to believe that in the grave new world of UFC roster austerity, with the highest-profile cuts being ground control guys, an unranked 34-year-old who's gone the distance in six of his last seven fights -- the other being a TKO loss -- might be close to the edge.
Maia (18-4) was once there, too. He had a run of seven straight decisions as a 185-pounder, the last one a defeat at the hands of soon-to-be champ Chris Weidman. For all of his jiu-jitsu credentials -- he's won multiple world championships in the discipline and is commonly proclaimed its most virtuosic practitioner in MMA -- the Brazilian wasn't producing much offensive firepower. But he's looked like a different fighter at welterweight, finishing Dong Hyun Kim and Rick Story before tangling with Jon Fitch in January. That one went the distance, but that didn't diminish Demian, 35, in the least. His performance was a beauty to behold as Maia outmaneuvered the positional master the whole way. Still, he need look no farther than to the post-fight fate of his opponent -- Fitch, whose only other losses in a 10-year span had been to champion Georges St-Pierre and next month's challenger Johny Hendricks, was abruptly cut -- to understand how swiftly and cruelly one's lot in life can change.
For a grappler, that is. If you're a striker willing to go all Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots in the octagon, you've got job security. Leonard Garcia endured a five-fight losing streak before the UFC finally informed him that he'd have to take his gusty windmill punching elsewhere. Chris Leben has lost three in a row and four of five, but nonetheless has a fight scheduled on the year-end card. Fitch, on the other hand, was let go even after smothering the hype behind Erick Silva (who fights Kim in Wednesday's co-main event). And less than two weeks ago fellow Top 10 fighter Yushin Okami, just a few fights removed from a challenge for the middleweight championship, was let go following a knockout loss to Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza. "He was always a tough guy and was right up there," White told Yahoo! Sports, "but it's almost like he'd become a gatekeeper."
Thus is the burden carried by UFC grapplers: Win and your style is no problem, but once you lose you're just in the way. Apparently, strikers are above being gatekeepers ... or maybe it's that there are only so many gatekeeping jobs to go around, and they're reserved for guys who get the crowd going with their brawling ethos. To be fair, it's not like the UFC is dumping everyone who's ever worn a singlet. The champions in the promotion's top three weight classes -- heavyweight Cain Velasquez, light heavy Jon Jones and middleweight Chris Weidman -- have collegiate wrestling pedigrees. And the king of the crowd one division down, St-Pierre, is often referred to as the best wrestler in MMA, a status that'll be tested next month when he faces two-time NCAA Division I champion Hendricks.
But Cain doesn't take down opponents and lie on them. He takes them down -- or knocks them down -- and pounds on them. Ten of his 12 victories have been by knockout. Similarly, when Jones isn't flashing around a creative striking game, he employs his wrestling to put opponents into bad positions -- which is to say, positions from which "Bones" can finish them, often brutally, usually to a deafening arena roar. Jon has gone the distance only four times in his 20-fight career. And then there's Weidman, who knocked out Mark Muñoz to secure a shot at the belt, then KO'd Anderson Silva to take ownership of it.
So the blueprint is laid out in front of Maia and Shields. One of them must knock the other one silly in order to survive in the turbulent UFC, right? Not necessarily, according to White. "There have been grappling fights where I've been at the edge of my seat, jumping up and down and going crazy," he said. "And then there are some grappling fights where I wish someone would run over and punch me in the face. So it depends."
Dana does see potential in Wednesday night's main event. Of course, he's the promoter. It's his job to accent the positive, which he does when he points out the improvement in Maia's striking and the resiliency Shields has shown when in the cage with men who use their fists better than he does. And if the pair of mat virtuosos do end up on the canvas, White has high hopes that we'll see a masterwork "a lot like the fight Maia had with Fitch."
Will the aftermath be similar, too? "Getting Fitched" used to mean being immobilized by a smothering grappler, but now it refers to going from high profile to low employment. It's hard to fathom that being the fate of Maia, who White said on Monday would "definitely" be in consideration for a title shot with a win. (There are two men ranked between him and the GSP-Hendricks victor, but Carlos Condit has recently fought both and Rory MacDonald says he won't fight his teammate Georges.) In the UFC, though, you're only as good as your last KO or submission lock. That's especially true for Shields, but it goes for Maia as well.
"A win would be a big win for Shields and obviously a huge loss for Demian Maia," said White. "This is a very dangerous fight for Demian and a very, very, very important fight for Jake Shields."
"Very, very, very" sounds ominous, very, very, very ominous. White would not play the speculation game -- understandable, since that would neither serve his promotion's interests nor be fair to his fighters -- but he left us to contemplate this: "Our roster is packed, we know that, and we always want to make sure there's room so that we can bring new up-and-coming talent to the UFC. Some guys will leave. New guys will come in. Some guys that were here before might end up coming back. That's the way it's always been and the way it always will be."
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