Josh Gross
Friday January 8th, 2010

If such a thing is possible, Gray Maynard cared too much.

When the powerful wrestler, a three time All-American at Michigan State University, first made his way into mixed martial arts in 2004, every practice was a battle. Losing a scramble or tapping to a submission were unacceptable realities when they should have been useful opportunities. In essence, Maynard competed hard even when it wasn't beneficial to do so.

By the time Maynard landed in Randy Couture's training camp, "Gray was pretty much getting his ass kicked on a daily basis," said the multiple-time UFC champion. "But he's tougher than hell and just kept on coming."

In time, Couture recognized in Maynard what he realized about himself after two failed bids at making the U.S. Olympic wrestling squad: focusing on the big picture is OK so long as it's not the only thing you have to look forward to. Otherwise, positive results from training -- improved technique or a marathoner's cardio -- are too easily dismissed.

"We talked a little about applying that wrestler mindset, that attitude wrestlers have, properly," Couture said. "Realizing that you can't just focus on the outcome of things all the time and get frustrated you're not getting to those places you want to be. Focusing on the smaller steps along the way and how much better you're getting is important. I think if you do that you stay motivated. It's like that carrot is always dangling there. You're always taking those small steps toward that eventual destination."

Five years after realizing he had a future in MMA, Maynard, now 30, is one of the top lightweight prospects in the sport, and a contender inside the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Monday at the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Va., (9 p.m. ET/PT, Spike TV) Maynard intends on taking another step forward, this time against the only fighter to defeat him in competition -- even if it isn't reflected on his record since the bout is considered an exhibition.

Still, in Maynard's mind, Nate Diaz is one up on him after locking on a guillotine choke during the semifinals of the fifth edition of The Ultimate Fighter in 2007.

"That'll be in my mind forever," said Maynard, whose official record stands at 8-0 with one no-contest. "You could ask me who I beat since I was 3 and I could tell you a couple names. You could ask me who I lost to and I'll tell you every single name. That stands out a lot more. It hurts. Ever since I was a kid, I took that stuff hard. I cried for days."

Named after amateur wrestling legend Gray Simons, Maynard seemed predestined to be a wrestler. And fortunately for him and his father Jan, it was a sport they both enjoyed.

"My dad was an easy-going guy," Maynard said. "He wasn't the type of guy that told me what tournaments I was going to. I was the kid that had the plan about what I wanted to do with wrestling. I gave him a list of camps that I really was trying to do. There was a couple times that they made me have a job to pay my way. It taught me that if I cared then I would do it, and I had to be prepared. If I lost then it was a waste of money and time. I put all this stuff on me when I was a kid."

With his dad in the bar business, Maynard moved around. A lot. Born in Arizona, he was uprooted to Tennessee, then Ohio, back to Tennessee, spent sixth through tenth grade in Las Vegas, and once more returned to Ohio for his final two years of high school.

"I knew if I wanted to get my college stuff paid for I needed to prove I was one of the best," he said. "Nevada isn't known for wrestling, or a lot of sports back then, so I chose the best school and the best state that I could to try and prove that."

If kids at the time had posters of Joe Montana or Bo Jackson their walls, Maynard dreamt big about American wrestling icons Dan Gable and Tom Brands. "People were like, 'Who the hell is that?'" he laughed. Yet at Michigan State, where he roomed with eventual UFC champion Rashad Evans, Maynard failed to reach his ultimate goals. In 2004 he shot big again, returning to Arizona in an attempt to land a spot on the U.S. Olympic wrestling squad. Caught between weight classes and ill-prepared to compete at that level, he came up short. Odd jobs followed, all the while Maynard felt he had to end up in sports.

MMA didn't come into the picture until B.J. Penn's camp called him to help the Hawaiian prepare for Rodrigo Gracie. It was then that he first caught a glimpse of what life was like as a professional fighter. Soon, he returned to Las Vegas and joined a group of eight guys who jumped from gym to gym. Couture's practice sessions, structured similarly to the wrestling rooms Maynard spent most of his days, made the most sense to him.

"Gray has no ego," said Couture when asked if anything about Maynard makes him more than just another wrestler finding shelter in MMA. "Combine that with his ability to just keeping working, and his learning curve is real steep."

Ranked among the 10 best 155-pound fighters in the sport, Maynard needs a win Monday to continue his march to the top and, perhaps, a fight against Penn for the UFC belt. But, he said, he isn't getting ahead of himself.

"Over time I've learned to concentrate on what you have to do today," he said. "I gotta get past Nate first. He's a tough guy."

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